All posts in Literature

  • ‘Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read’: Banned Books and Little Britain

    Just over a month ago, I was thrilled to learn that Harper Lee had authorised the digitisation of To Kill a Mockingbird. I had just led an outreach programme at a women’s prison on ‘Race and America’ in which we used Mockingbird as a source text to anchor our discussion. The women that took part loved the programme and loved the book. During the session we also listened to Emmylou Harris’s beautiful and haunting song ‘My Name is Emmett Till’ as we considered the resonance of racial violence in America (and beyond). The women were deeply affected by the simple acoustic melodies and the penetrating lyrics of the song, and they were moved by the insights of a young girl named Scout Finch.

    I didn’t study Mockingbird at school, but I did read the book after my mum introduced me to the film with Gregory Peck when I was a teenager. When I was in NOLA, I noticed the book sitting on the bookshelf in the apartment where I was staying, and felt impelled to read it again. It was partly because it was fresh in my mind after rereading the text that I decided to use it in my outreach day. When I left NOLA, and left Tom’s place, I left the book behind. On my return to the UK I tried to get hold of an etext so that I could plan my outreach programme, but there just weren’t any out there. So I went to a bookstore and bought a hard copy of the thing. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE physical books. I like to scrawl over them, mark their pages, and smell them (especially if they’re ageing). Part of the enjoyment of reading is, for me at least, its kinaesthetic aspect. However, if you saw my bookshelf (which really is fit to burst), then you’d understand why I wanted to get hold of an ePub!

    When Lee announced on her birthday (a birthday that she shares with my brilliant father, coincidentally) that she had sanctioned its distribution as an etext I was elated. Given the number of young children that now have iPads, Kindles, and such like, I was surprised, when I had tried to get hold of an electronic version of my own, that such a great work of children’s literature hadn’t been made available in digital format before. When the news broke, I tweeted about it a lot. What can I say? I was excited. Maybe people didn’t think it was a particularly big deal, but I did. I was excited at the prospect of this magnetic work flashing up as recommended reading on the eReaders of young technophiles. Whereas many teenagers have long been required to read Mockingbird for their GCSE exams, children might now, I imagined, choose to read the book of their own volition, because it is there, at their fingertips. In any case, and whatever Lee’s motivation behind her decision to go digital, I felt confident that the reach of the text would be that much greater as a result. And reach seems to me especially important given the continuing relevance of the main themes of the text. Mockingbird was published in the wake of the murder of Emmett Till, and it was only two years ago that Trayvon Martin was shot by George Zimmerman for looking too black to be up to any good in a gated community in Florida. ‘Stand Your Ground’ and the gross miscarriage of justice that it led to in this particular case bore an all too uncanny resemblance to the injustices suffered by Mamie Till and by Lee’s fictional Tom Robinson.

    Books like Mockingbird allow us ways in to seeing and acknowledging our dark histories, histories in which even (and especially) us small islanders are complicit. Our great institutions were built on the proceeds of, and formed a key role in perpetuating, slavery in the Americas. We can choose not to acknowledge this. It’s easy, in fact, and we do it all the time. Nobody sees the black soldier on the bas-relief at the foot of Nelson’s column. Nobody sees the slaves on Jamaican plantations as they peruse Hans Sloane’s collections at the British Museum. It’s not even palpably present in our great country houses. But all of these things lay at the heart of our history, and if it weren’t for ‘outsider’ perspectives like Lee’s, we might not be encouraged to talk about them.

    As you can imagine, I was truly horrified when I heard the news last week that British exam boards had planned to remove this brilliant text (amongst other controversial and politically engaged American texts) from their English programmes. I went into a rage. I stomped around, I tweeted vociferously, and I sat down to brainstorm ideas for a campaign to reverse the parochial actions of the Department for Education. It wasn’t long before I realised that all of this was probably futile. What angered me the most was that this news had come at a time when the text’s reach had been expanded; when more people would have had the opportunity to talk about it. The digitisation of Mockingbird brought it into the public imagination once more. Removing the text from the GCSE syllabus seemed to me like killing the conversation. To add insult to injury, WJEC announced that it would be removing Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings from its list of set texts only two days after Angelou’s death, at a time, again, when everyone was talking about her and the major influence of her works. The criticism levelled against the DfE for the exclusion of texts from other cultures from the school syllabus is of course a valid one, but I also think we need to talk about how insensitive and just plain stupid these decisions are, given the public presence of these authors and these texts at this current moment.

    Ultimately, had it not been for the American greats that I studied at school – writers like Steinbeck and Tennessee Williams – I may not have chosen to enrol on the degree programme that I took as an undergraduate in English and American Literature. It’s almost certain that I wouldn’t be working towards a PhD right now, wouldn’t have had the opportunity to spend one incredible month of my life in New Orleans doing research, and I wouldn’t have had any contact with the amazing people who have enriched my academic life. I can only speculate, of course, what my life would have been like if I’d read different books at school, but it makes me sad to think that one day in the not too distant future I might be teaching university students who have never read any Steinbeck, or Miller, or Lee, or Angelou, and the work will be so much harder, and the students will feel they have been defrauded as they will, perhaps for the first time, have to open their eyes, expand their vision, and engage in conversations that they find difficult and unprepared for.

    I’m not so cynical that I think children won’t find these books on their own. Some, of course, will (I am living, breathing testimony to that fact). There will, however, be those that won’t, and those that won’t will lose so much, and not just where America is concerned, but in terms of their own histories, and their own world visions. Little Britain might just become even smaller.

  • Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans?


    …So mused Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong in the 1947 film New Orleans. As I sit here in the kitchen of my beautiful (rented) Mid-City shotgun house, I am beginning to contemplate that very question. The only way that I could answer is in the affirmative: yes. Most assuredly, yes. A million times, yes. New Orleans has been the place that I have called my home for the past month, and in many ways, I feel that I am leaving home. Of course, in reality, I am returning home and am happy to be, but I am also sad. Who knew that a place could leave a person with feelings so bittersweet? Certainly I did not, and I don’t think I’ve ever had that experience before.

    Many a time I’ve fallen head over heels in love with a place: Sydney, Liguria, Havana, Perigord, and, of course, New York. Julian and I have talked about one day (in the not too remote future) moving out to New York for a period, and there are a handful of other places that I think I could one day call home. And now I’ve caught the bug; this trip has showed me that, while it may be hard, I could do it. That said, I think that this experience has been a unique one, and will remain with me forever. It’s the kind of bug that takes root and never leaves. There is something to be said about the ‘infectious’ nature of the South, I think, and New Orleans in particular – about how it affects you, invades you, and penetrates to the very core of you. The landscape issues its own kind of poetry: the bayous and cypresses, the creole cottages, the balconies, the cemeteries, the slowly sinking sidewalks, the Big Muddy. I could go on, but I don’t know where it would end – my mind and my senses are literally teeming – and, quite frankly, there are some things that I would like to retain just for myself.

    So I’ll finish with this: if I’ve learnt one important thing on this trip, I’ve learnt that to write about the South, and to truly understand the South, one must first go to the South. It’s not enough to read books about it. Books are nevertheless a great starting point, and, ultimately, they led me here. I’m continuing to follow the trail with new books, and with old books and a fresh mind. See y’all soon.


  • At the Mouth of the Mississippi: Archives, Histories, 12 Years a Slave

    Hey y’all. I’ve been in Louisiana for a week now, and that week seems to have passed by without me even realising. It has been eye-opening, liberating, and, of course, rewarding – on both a personal and professional level. For most of the time that I’ve been here, at least during the working day, I’ve been poring over manuscripts in the archives. I’ve become a regular and recognizable frequenter of several New Orleans institutions, and I’ve been welcomed and assisted by everyone that I’ve met. It hasn’t all been plain sailing, however. Earlier today, I met with some American graduate students at LSU and together we discussed how intimidating the archives can be. The archival material that I have been looking at has been challenging, and not least because a lot of it is in manuscript form and written in a foreign language (not only French, but an archaic eighteenth-century French). To add to this, some of the manuscripts written in English have been equally, if not more, challenging – to give you an example, I spent about two hours trying to decipher a draft foreword that George Washington Cable wrote for his short story ’Tite Poulette, and had to transcribe it, writing down all of the variations of certain words that I could not quite make out, until I came out with the best possible outcome. What I found was interesting, and (I hope) useful, but it could easily have been two hours wasted.

    The headaches of reading minute and foreign manuscript with magnifying glasses were assuaged slightly last Friday, when I met Wayne Philips, who manages the costume collection at the Louisiana State Museum. Wayne showed me a selection of ‘tignons’ – also described in the collection catalogues as ‘bandanas’ and perhaps best understood by us as headscarves – worn by women of color in antebellum America, and one in particular that is thought to have originated in Saint-Domingue (colonial Haiti). I had been looking forward to seeing these artefacts, mainly because I think that the best histories are told through palpable objects, and to see them in the flesh pleased me no end. But unlike the manuscripts that had told me, and given me clues to, a great many things, the tignons harboured secrets that I was not able to penetrate. Other than the short descriptions in the LSM catalogues that indicated the origins of the artefacts and alluded to the (racial) status of their unknown wearers, there was no additional information to help me work out what these items might have signified to the wearer or to wider society. Wayne and I talked for some time about the various possibilities but agreed that we could really only speculate on what these might be. The stories of these objects we can only imagine because the presumed female wearers did not write them down – not to our knowledge, at least.

    Today, after one of the better days in the archives, I went to see the highly acclaimed Steve McQueen film, 12 Years a Slave. As you know, earlier this year I went to see Django: Unchained, and wrote a lengthy piece about it here. I have done a lot of thinking about Django, since I first saw it, and agree with my younger brother that it’s not really a slave revenge film – or even a film about slavery, for that matter – it is a white fantasy about the history that we would all like to imagine as having happened, and this fantasy is given ultimate sanction by the white liberator/avenger character King, who, in the end, is martyred.  This film, in contrast, was an adaptation of the personal narrative of the same name recorded by Solomon Northup, a black musician from the state of New York who was beguiled, captured, and sold into slavery in Louisiana. The film is not unproblematic, and some of the problems surrounding the adaptation had been brought to my attention earlier in the day when the graduate students that I had met with discussed it in their class on the American plantation, but I came out of the cinema with a sense that an important history had been imaginatively brought to life, without (m)any speculative of the fantasies that make films like Django much more problematic. There were holes and silences where those silences exist in reality; I was troubled and saddened, for example, by the fact that the narrative was unable to communicate the fates of enslaved women such as Elizabeth and Patsy, and still feel haunted by the thought of what may have lay in wait for them beyond Northup’s narrative.

    Just before the film started, I saw a trailer for the film Belle,which tells the story of a woman of color who forms the second subject in Johann Zoffany’s portrait of Lady Elizabeth Murray. Dido Elizabeth Belle began life as the daughter of a slave woman from the West Indies and Admiral John Lindsay, and was raised in the household of William Murray, Earl of Mansfield. From the snatches that I saw, this film looks to be more of a romance than the stark and meticulous narrative of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, but it offers a window into another history that has seldom reached the level of public understanding: the story of what it was like to occupy a precarious space as a black woman in the household of white aristocrats.

    I am glad that black histories from the diaspora are being gradually recuperated in film narratives like 12 Years a Slave and I can’t help but be excited about Belle, in spite of the romantic inflections, and I hope that the projection of modern fantasies about the experiences and sufferings of real people does not replace the excavation of those harder to find histories. There are of course things that we may never know, but that doesn’t mean that we should stop looking.


  • When the going gets tough, the tough get writing

    Life for PhD student can be pretty solitary. The cultural switch from the corporate world of interaction, swivel chairs and tea-making rotations to the world of wood-paneled walls and endless books was initially quite a shock to the system when I started my course in October last year. Of course, I love what I do, but it can be really hard to work within the limited space of your own mind for an indefinite period of time, especially when it’s so difficult to compartmentalise all of the other things that are going on up there and focus on one thing at a time. When you initially try to come down from the abstract theoretical space and ground your ideas on paper, everything turns into a bit of a confusing mush. You read back what you’ve written and think, ‘ick, that’s not what was up there in my head!’

    Over the past week I have been trying to write: to tap into my inner creative. Tap tap tap. At times it has felt liberating, at others frustrating. Mostly it’s felt frustrating. I started the week with a plan, and immediately had to scrap the plan. After redrafting the plan I seemed to be away, and then the weekend came. And then I wrote some more, before stalling. In fact, this very piece has been punctuated by stalls. All of this points to a larger problem – the problem that one will naturally encounter problems in the creative process. In order to surmount these problems, solutions need to be devised; in the corporate world, we jokingly used to call it ‘solutionising.’

    These solutions, I think, have to come in the form of variety. If in the past I have hit a stumbling block, I have overcome it not by removing the obstacle, but by removing myself. I take myself away, turn to the books, instigate a conversation with someone who might be able to give me perspective, or otherwise try to replicate the same thing elsewhere. This blog is a friend that invites and celebrates all of that variety. At times I descend into silence. But it is not good, nor is it productive, to focus entirely on one thing at the expense of everything else. The old adage that, in trying to cast your net out wide, you become a ‘Jack of all trades, but master of none’ is totally unhelpful. It is only through dabbling in difference that we are able to sharpen our senses and develop an awareness of new things, while enriching our sense of the old. It is all well and good to say ‘I plan to do this, this and this today’, but sometimes those plans don’t work for us, and we need to be prepared to reformulate.

    In this sense, teaching ourselves is like teaching others, but a little harder, as we are not always able to see opportunity in our own problems: we just see further problems. So we need interventions. Sometimes it’s hard to know that, but, generally speaking, whenever I go quiet, that’s a clue. If I haven’t written here in a while, please clamour and shout – it really is for my own good!

    I don’t know whether the writing fairy paid me a visit in the night, but for now I’ll work with what I can. Tap tap tap…

  • Life, Liebster, and Love in 11 Questions

    A little under a week ago, my friend Toni messaged me to tell me that she had been nominated for the Liebster Award, which recognises the achievements of small blogs. I can’t think of anyone who might deserve the prize more, personally. Toni has a fantastic blog all about food. I know what you’re thinking: for the record, it’s not ‘just another food blog’, but is abundant with tasty inspiration, and I urge you all to check it out at

    Part of the award’s criteria is that the award winner has to name 11 other blogs that they would consider nominating for the award, thereby effectively ‘paying it forward’, and offer those 11 bloggers 11 questions to answer. Toni was kind (and perhaps deluded?!) enough to count me amongst her 11; so, without further ado, here are her questions for me, coupled with my responses:

    Vanilla or Chocolate ice cream?
    Chocolate. Bitter is better.
    Elvis Presley or Johnny Cash?
    Oh no, now that’s not fair. Why do I have to choose? I love them both. I love country and blues, but also rock and rockabilly. Right now, at this moment in time, I’d say Elvis. But that’s probably only because I recently discovered this guy, who is simply amazing: Can’t wait to see him at the Goodwood Revival this year.
    Photography or Illustrations?
    Photography, but nothing that I produce myself. I love to create, to make things new with my hands, but have never been a keen illustrator or photographer.
    Cookies or Cake?
    Vintage or futuristic?
    Vintage, but nothing that smells musty and nothing that’s discoloured. I like to discover things in charity shops rather than pay £50 for something at a vintage fair that I could have had made new for less.
    Beach or skiing holiday?
    Beach. I don’t care where, just take me there. Now.
    City or country?
    I like to live and work in the city, but retreat to the country every once in a while.
    Comedy or horror?
    Dark comedy…ergo, both?
    Lark or Owl? (Early Bird or Owl?)
    I’m definitely a lark. The early bird catches the worm.
    Your five perfect dinner party guests?
    This is also tricky. How do I do this without upsetting anyone I know? The truth is, there are so many people that I love to have dinner with (Toni and her partner included), so I am going to give you my fantasy list, which includes: Dolores Ibarrurri (a.k.a. La Pasionaria – to whom this blog is partially dedicated), Mary Seacole (a Jamaican woman who nursed British troops – and also kept them well fed – during the Crimean War), Karl Marx (because it all started with him), Jane Austen (so I could ask her why) and Edwidge Danticat (because I don’t need to ask her why). Ok, so four out of the five are dead. I guess it would just be Edwidge, then.
    The one thing that makes you happiest?