Mongrel Tongues/Mongrel Nation: William Matthews Lecture 2018

On Thursday 29 November, author Bernadine Evaristo delivered an insightful lecture exploring how and why authors create voices that challenge the predominance of Standard English as the literary and cultural norm.

If you were passing the Beveridge Hall in Senate House on Thursday 29 November, you may have been surprised to hear a speaker addressing her audience in a language decidedly far from Standard English. Indeed, it wasn’t just author Bernadine Evaristo’s voice that filled the hall as she gave her fascinating lecture entitled ‘Mongrel Tongues/Mongrel Nation’, but the voices of countless others who have been left out of traditional English literature. From the pidgin English of Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Sozaboy [soldier boy] (1985) to the inner city gang slang voiced by Evaristo’s protagonist in Hello Mum (2010), this year’s William Matthews Lecture challenged our ideas of the language that should be spoken in literature, and opened the floor to include every voice in the discussion.

Following a welcome from Professor Heike Bauer, Head of Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities, Bernadine Evaristo, who has written eight books and numerous other publications, began the lecture with a discussion about belonging. Having grown up in Britain with a black father and a white mother, Evaristo knows what it is to feel different. Recalling the disapproval of her mother’s family when their daughter married a Nigerian, Evaristo explains “My father always said that he became a black man when he arrived in England … Black British people were not seen as fully, properly British, and from this I absorbed the concept of ‘blackness’ as a negative.” This idea was explored in her first novel, Lara (1997).

Evaristo herself felt like an outsider for much of her youth, neither fully belonging to her father’s Nigerian culture nor the British one in which she was growing up. “People don’t know you, but they think they do,” she explains, “they know ‘your kind.’” Such was Evaristo’s father’s concern that she should be fully integrated into British culture, that he deliberately avoided passing his own language and heritage onto his children. Perhaps it is due to this loss that Evaristo is determined to broaden our understanding of the value of a range of different voices in literature.

Through the evening’s discussion, Evaristo asks “Can you truly capture characters’ lives in Standard English?” Take the aforementioned Sozaboy, for example. His stream of consciousness is punctuated with non-standard phrases that form part of the pidgin English spoken by 75 million people in Nigeria. Evaristo argues that by using Sozaboy’s language, its author, Ken Saro-Wiwa, establishes the setting, society, culture and context that make up Sozaboy’s world. The use of dialect, far from patronizing the protagonist, means that “we are charmed by him”, and “when he goes to war, so do we.”

By giving the text the subtitle “A Novel in Rotten English”, Saro-Wiwa brings the discomfort that an audience accustomed to Standard English might feel on reading (and understanding) the book to the forefront. But Evaristo also draws attention to writers that go further than this, such as Junot Díaz, who leaves vast swathes of his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) in Spanish, without offering his reader a convenient explanation or glossary. This act, which Evaristo dubs “assertive non-translation”, forces the reader to engage with “the bilingual and bicultural reality of the text”, and begs the question: how far can we embed foreign words and phrases in our literature, without alienating our reader?

For Evaristo, the expansion of accepted novelistic languages is a welcome one, and she argues that writers and artists should have the freedom to write from any perspective (while amused by the fact that, as a self-titled black writer, she should be seen as more limited in subject matter than a white writer, given the vast cultural richness and experiences of the 54 countries of Africa and 33 countries of the Caribbean, not to mention the Americas and Britain itself). Indeed, in her 2010 short novel Hello Mum, she sought to get inside the mind of a teenage boy, conducting extensive research in youth detention centres and carefully mimicking the style of speech she found. For, as Evaristo says, “How do we begin to claim ownership of something as nebulous and transitory as culture?” It is not the right voice, but every voice, that should be heard through literature.

The annual William Matthews Lecture at Birkbeck is made possible by a bequest from the estate of the late Professor William Matthews for a lecture on either the English language or medieval English literature.

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Winnie Madikizela-Mandela: A Controversial Life

Join an upcoming symposium, exploring the life and legacy of Winnie Mandela through screenings of two documentaries, Winnie (2017) and Winnie Mandela and the Missing Witness (2010), followed by discussions with the directors and further panel discussions. This will take place on Friday 16 November 2018, 9am-4.30pm, at the 43 Gordon Square Cinema. 

In death, as in life, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela continues to excite strong views. Exemplified in the Independent headline, ‘Winnie Mandela: the turbulent life of the woman who went from “Mother of the Nation” to “mugger”’, most narratives of this global icon either fall into the binary trope of good/bad mother, or trace the fall from grace of a respected and courageous comrade. Excoriated by her critics, most significantly, for her association with the Mandela United Football Club’s violent activities in the 1980s, her life and legacy has gained a renewed saliency in South Africa in which her visions of a radical democracy speak anew to a younger generation of activists disillusioned with the fruits of the ‘Mandela miracle’ and with what they see as the compromises of the ANC leadership.  Both the essentially mythical Madikizela-Mandela and the complex and controversial historical figure call for re-examination.

This day’s symposium, held to mark the centenary year of Nelson Mandela’s birth, and the year of the death of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, seeks to play a role in this reappraisal. Beginning with the screening of two recent documentaries of her life, the Sundance Award-winning film Winnie (2017) and Winnie Mandela and the Missing Witness, (BBC Inside Story series. Episode TRC 99, Part 01, 2010), and discussion between the directors Pascale Lamsche and Nicholas Claxton, and film-scholar Dr Jacqueline Maingard, the days’ events conclude with a round-table and Q and A session with columnists, writers and academics. Columnist and publisher Palesa Morudu, historians Drs Elizabeth Williams, Emily Bridger and Professor Colin Bundy, and writer, Fred Bridgland will form this second panel, chaired by the former BBC correspondent, Martin Plaut. They, together with an audience of academics and the interested public, will reflect on the turbulent and dramatic life of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela looking beyond one-dimensional vilifications and rose-tinted eulogies and immortalisations to consider the historical figure in all her complexity.

An initiative of the University of London Southern African Studies Seminar, and generously funded by BIMI, BISR and the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, it has been convened by Sue Onslow (Institute of Commonwealth Studies), Emma Sandon (Birkbeck) and Hilary Sapire (Birkbeck)

Click here for further information and to register.

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Open Access: process, ethics and possibilities

For International Open Access Week 2018, Birkbeck Library held a panel discussion exploring the future and the radical potential of open access publishing. Melissa Steiner, Assistant Librarian, reports on the event.

What would the world look like if access to knowledge was free? This was the question we at the Library asked our students during International Open Access week, 22-28 October. Many responses cited advantages not only to students’ own education but also to the development of knowledge across the world, with the winning answer stating it would ‘unleash people’s potential… Who knows what people could achieve if the barriers to education were removed?’

The theme of International Open Access week this year was Designing Equitable Foundations for Open Knowledge. At Birkbeck, we considered this theme through a panel event held in the Keynes Library entitled Open Access: process, ethics and possibilities. This was chaired by Sarah Lee, Head of Research Strategy Support at Birkbeck and was held the day after the launch of Birkbeck’s new Research Office.

The first speaker was Martin Paul Eve, Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing here at Birkbeck and member of the UUK Open Access Monographs Working Group. His presentation considered the implications of HEFCE’s proposed mandate that monographs will be required to be made available open access (OA) for the REF in 2020.  Martin laid bare the (high) costs of monograph publishing, and considered funding options for OA publishing in the humanities. He concluded that time was running out for a framework to be built to make this mandate possible, given that the various options available would have repercussions for one or more stakeholders.

The second speaker was Simon Bowie, a library systems worker at SOAS, University of London. He has worked on the implementation and support of open-source systems in HE libraries. Simon’s talk focussed on the radical and disruptive potential of using open source software/infrastructure in libraries. He critiqued the assumption that technology is neutral and proposed an alternative to the hold proprietary software companies have over libraries, urging systems librarians to consider the ethical implications of the software they use and realise the potential that open source offers.

The final speaker was Lucy Lambe, Scholarly Communications Officer at the LSE. Lucy’s talk focused on an initiative at LSE in which researchers were paired with comics creator Karen Rubins, who developed the abstract of their academic articles into comic strips. The success of this initiative demonstrates the power of open licensing (in this case Creative Commons) and open access publishing. The research, which may have been otherwise inaccessible to those outside of the university, was turned into something more easily disseminated to the non-academic public, an important factor when considering how much research is publically funded, and increased the researchers’ impact.

Birkbeck Library was very pleased to be able to bring together a panel with the expertise and thought-provoking insights of our speakers, and it was an excellent opener to the rest of OA week which included sessions on using open access resources, understanding green & gold open access, a DOI for data/ORCID drop in, and of course, the Open Access board game all run by library staff.

Removing barriers to accessing knowledge is an issue close to the heart of library and information workers and we look forward to next years’ International Open Access Week!

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A new world to be explored

Rukhsana Yeasmin recounts her experiences of studying BA Classics at Birkbeck and the deep love she developed for the subject, which she is now continuing at MA level. She credits her tutors for support and guidance that got her through her degree in difficult times.

The year I decided to study for my undergraduate degree, Birkbeck seemed to be the best option with its strong reputation, its rich facilities in the heart of London and teaching from world-leading experts in the field of Classics. I have never regretted choosing Birkbeck since then.

My journey into the classical world started with my love of philosophy, although I never knew at the time that I was merely looking through the window, with a big new world still waiting to be explored. As I delved deeper into classical literature, it taught me in the most profound – yet accommodating – way that truth is the greatest of all virtues. It is the perfect beauty of truth that provided courage to both Odysseus and Aeneid to undertake the long journey of uncertainty. Similarly, it inspired Plato, Aristotle and Seneca to dedicate their lives in explaining and teaching philosophy. Classical literature teaches us that the search for truth remains sacred to all human existence, and the very thing that makes a hero out of a man.

Although passion will carry one through tough times, achieving good results in a subject requires constancy, dedication and persistent effort every day. While having to care for an elderly parent and going through my own personal crisis in relationships and almost all spheres of life, I found deep solace in classical literature. One of my favourite verses that I learnt in my time at Birkbeck is ‘Dum spiro spero,’ or, ‘as I live I breathe.’

I had regular meetings with my personal tutors, who so kindly and promptly replied to all my emails with guidance and support every time that I reached out to them. In my two year-long modules on Greek history with Dr Christy Constantakopoulou, I was transported to Greece in every lesson, and all ancient writers and warriors came back to life. In the presence of my teacher and dissertation supervisor, Professor Catharine Edwards, everywhere my life glanced I saw possibility. I have had supreme pleasure and the deepest sense of fulfilment while working under her supervision. I am thoroughly indebted to the selfless support and guidance of both my personal tutors Dr Serafina Cuomo and Dr Christopher Farrell for supporting me in completing my undergraduate degree. Moreover, I have never met an undergraduate administration staff member as helpful as David Jones, who was always welcoming and ready to support me whenever I was in need. If it wasn’t for the help and support of them all, I do not think my hard work alone would have got me this far. I remain deeply grateful to Birkbeck and all these members of staff.

I am now studying for my MA in South Asian Area Studies while focusing on the history, philosophy and literature of Ancient India at SOAS. My studies of the classical world at Birkbeck have prepared me to bring new perspectives into my recent studies, and I wish to carry on with further education focused on the historical, cultural and ideological transaction with Graceo Bacterian Kingdoms.

Once one has studied the classical world, one is ultimately placed into the axis of world literature, from where literature of every era becomes relative. The fusion of the past, present and future is so inevitable within classical literature within classical literature that one gets lost and found simultaneously. This is exactly what a classicist experiences, and this is why we study classics.

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