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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Pioneer Programme supporting entrepreneurial students at Birkbeck kicks off with a bang

Students on the Pioneer programme began the journey to develop their entrepreneurial skills with an inspiring session on Innovation and left feeling energised and motivated for the year ahead.

On Saturday 17 November, nearly 200 Birkbeck students started their journey on the Pioneer programme, a 7-part course that develops their entrepreneurial skills and knowledge and culminates with a Pitch and Celebration Evening in June 2019.

The programme, in partnership with Santander Universities, began with an inspiring and energetic session on Innovation from serial innovator and entrepreneur Julie Holmes, who motivated the students to pursue their ideas and turn them into reality. In between science-experiment style fireworks and top tips for starting a business, Julie kicked off the Pioneer programme with a bang and prepared the audience for a brilliant programme ahead.

Students also heard from Ambi Mistry at Creative Entrepreneurs, a movement that brings together the resources, roles models and networks creative people need to turn their ideas into successful businesses. Ambi delivered an invaluable networking session to encourage students to collaborate and think outside the box when it comes to making connections for their business ideas.

Jenna Davies, Programme Manager for Pioneer said, “Pioneer offers a fantastic platform for students who have a business idea or who are keen to develop entrepreneurial skills. Julie and Ambi have started this year’s programme in incredible fashion; the students were genuinely buzzing when they left the building.”

Baldeep Hothi, Programme Coordinator added, “The students will benefit immensely from Pioneer and it’s clear that they have already gained so much from this first session. Santander’s support has made this happen and we can’t wait to continue the journey in the coming months.”

Pioneer continues in December followed by a monthly workshop on a range of topics including Lean Business, Start-up Marketing, Funding, Pitching and more.

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Celebrating, Commemorating, Centenaries of Suffrage

As the centenary year of women’s suffrage draws to a close, The Centre for the Study of British Politics and Public Life has been examining how and why we celebrate centenaries.

What springs to mind when you hear the words ‘women’s suffrage’? The purple, green and white banners of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), Emily Wilding Davison losing her life in protest at Epsom Derby, or perhaps the lively rendition of ‘Votes for Women’ given by Mrs Banks in Mary Poppins? All this and more was acknowledged at a fascinating event from The Centre for the Study of British Politics and Public Life at Birkbeck on Tuesday 13 November, as the centenary year of women’s suffrage draws to a close.

Chaired by Professor Sarah Childs of Birkbeck’s Department of Politics, Celebrating, Commemorating, Centenaries of Suffrage aimed to address the centenary of women’s suffrage by exploring how and why we celebrate centenaries.

The first part of the evening saw Dr Mari Takayanagi, a Senior Archivist at the Parliamentary Archives, deliver her paper Celebrating Suffrage Centenaries. She began by explaining how one of the most important anniversaries in the UK’s democratic history is in many respects problematic. As the UK celebrates the centenary of the Representation of the People Act 1918, it’s worth remembering that the Pitcairn Islands in the Pacific have already commemorated their 175 anniversary of women’s suffrage, while the more local Isle of Man has had equal suffrage since 1881. Suffrage has rarely been awarded, at least at first, without being linked to age, race, marital status, class and even relation to men in the armed forces, and British women would wait another ten years for the Equal Franchise Act of 1928 to grant them the same voting rights as men.

Still, this first legislative step towards equal suffrage should be recognised and the impact of this year of national commemoration has been both powerful and wide-ranging. Centenaries act as a catalyst for reflection, prompting greater public awareness and accelerating academic research. During this period, government grants were awarded to projects addressing discrimination and improving female work progression and numerous exhibitions were curated to capitalise on the renewed interest in women’s suffrage. Institutions that boasted some of the biggest collections on this subject, such as the Museum of London and the Manchester People’s Museum, used the opportunity to draw public attention to their permanent exhibits.

Dr Takayanagi argued that centenaries hold a unique emotive power, asking whose memory should be drawn on in their commemoration, and whose memory should be honoured? Unsurprisingly, memorable protagonists of the suffrage movement took centre stage in the celebrations. Emily Wilding Davison alone was remembered through documentary, commemorative services, a play, a plaque, a tree, not to mention #Emilymatters and an appearance at the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony. Indeed, the marking of the centenary of suffrage has in many ways been dominated by the militant side of women’s suffrage, the WSPU. The striking purple, white and green banner now seems synonymous with the entire women’s suffrage movement, leaving the red of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) and the gold of the Women’s Freedom League to jostle for shelter underneath it.

Undoubtedly, said Dr Takayanagi, the WSPU knew a thing or two about marketing, but could the success of their particular brand of militant feminism ring truer with today’s audience and the swelling anger of the #Metoo campaign than their non-violent counterparts? Thirst for feisty feminist heroines can be quenched more easily with an Emmeline Pankhurst than a Millicent Fawcett. Either way, Dr Takayanagi hopes that the huge public interest roused in 2018 will continue as the ten year countdown to the centenary of universal suffrage begins.

This insightful talk was followed by a roundtable discussion with Mary Branson, Parliament Artist in Residence 2016, and Dr Red Chidgey, lecturer in Gender and Media at Kings College London. The thread running through a broad and lively discussion and Q&A session seemed to be the desire for the uncovering of an inclusive, collective memory of the fight for universal suffrage. Branson discussed how her discovery of a staggeringly wide range of arrested female protestors through the parliamentary archives led her to create an art installation, New Dawn, that would celebrate the ordinary women of the suffrage movement. Dr Chidgey drew on the example of modern feminist movements, such as Sisters Uncut, who sport the colours of the WSPU, to ask if the ‘beloved national feminist memory’ of women’s suffrage could become a tool of protest, rather than its result.

The evening was aptly concluded by Sian Norris, Ben Pimlott Writer in Residence 2018 in the Department of Politics, who read two monologues from the pamphlet  And in the end, we won: Three stories of women’s protest, written as part of her residency at Birkbeck. As her words led us from the mind of a silenced woman of pre-1918 Britain to one who feels she has no voice in the era of the Trump administration, we appeared to need the memory of the suffrage movement more than ever before.

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Man Booker at Birkbeck 2018: A conversation with Mohsin Hamid

Dr Ben Winyard, Senior Content Editor, discusses the recent Man Booker at Birkbeck event, which saw writer Mohsin Hamid in conversation with Birkbeck’s Dr Anna Hartnell about his novels Exit West (2017) and The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007).

Writer Mohsin Hamid on Anarkali Street in Lahore, Pakistan.

On Tuesday 30 October 2018, in a stimulating, erudite and humane exchange, Mohsin Hamid spoke to an audience of over 200 Birkbeck staff and students about his Man Booker Prize-nominated novel, Exit West (2017). Many of the recent novels discussed at the Man Booker at Birkbeck event have been partly or fully set in the past, but Hamid’s novel is set contemporaneously and is concerned with the challenges we collectively face in our globalised, interconnected world, including armed conflict, climate change, religious violence and the mass migration of peoples.

The novel tells the story of Nadia and Saeed, who meet unexpectedly in an unnamed city and feel drawn towards one another, despite their manifest differences. Saeed is religiously minded, straightforward and well-behaved, while Nadia belies her outwardly conformist appearance by living alone, riding a motorbike, experimenting with psychedelic mushrooms and refusing to pray. Where Saeed is cautiously content, Nadia is instinctively interrogative and rebellious. However, their tentative, burgeoning relationship is beset by an armed conflict that sees their city seized by shadowy, sadistic militants. Forced to flee, the thrown-together couple find themselves bivouacked in a refugee camp on Mykonos, squatting in an uninhabited, palatial mansion in London, and subsisting on a hillside just outside San Francisco.

Initially, Exit West is an apparently realistic novel that depicts Nadia and Saeed’s relationship with wry empathy and the coming onslaught with clear-eyed horror. But, the novel soon becomes something far stranger and less predictable, when the characters begin moving between countries via mysterious black doors. While omitting the great strain and trauma of life-threatening journeys across increasingly militarised borders, the novel still viscerally conveys the poverty, suffering and shock experienced by the uprooted everywhere.

If the novel begins to feel like a magical realist allegory about contemporary migration, it evades our expectations again, by imagining a not-too-distant future, in which the West – and London in particular – teeters on the edge of dystopia, as the inhabitants of nation-states struggle with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of migrants through the enchanted doors. Hamid’s compassionate and optimistic vision is of a world that adapts to this challenge; Nadia and Saeed find themselves on a building site, helping with the expansion of London as it grows to absorb the incomers. The nascent threats of racism, nativist violence and authoritarianism thus give way to a pragmatic humanitarianism. While Nadia and Saeed’s relationship does not survive the upheavals they face, they are able to separate amicably and the novel’s coda depicts an older, friendly re-encounter between them in the now-peaceful city of their birth.

Dr Anna Hartnell, Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Literature in Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities, asked Hamid about the large themes that provide a backdrop to Nadia and Saeed’s relationship and he wryly observed, “My life has always seemed to play out against a huge political backdrop”, including the rise of militarism and Islamism in Pakistan, the 9/11 attacks in the United States, and Brexit in the UK. In the face of these vast, overwhelming tumults, Hamid’s focus is on the ordinary, everyday affability of Nadia and Saeed, who retain their humanity despite the most extreme provocations. “We have the most powerful people in the world who tell us that there is no truth and that nobody’s decent”, Hamid observed, “so, I tried to write a novel about people being decent.”

For Hamid, the novel is both a mirror of ‘what it is like to be a human being on this planet’ and a navigational tool that can orientate us in discombobulating times. The make-believe elements of Exit West are, for the author, a means of understanding and circumnavigating the real world. “I’m interested in writing books that do what books can do”, Hamid argued. In an era saturated in the cinematic, the novel, he asserted, should do what the screenplay can’t: it should dispense with dialogue and get inside of people and their feelings. He is interested in ‘taking novels in a bookish direction’ and he spoke passionately about the ‘really powerful’ narrative voice of children’s books, which is often on the side of the characters and of the reader, too, drawing them together and making the reader feel deeply invested in the action. With his interest in children’s literature, Hamid also humorously acknowledged that the magical doors in Exit West ‘may owe something to Narnia’.

Hamid was clear that we must all acknowledge and embrace our innate hybridity and categorical impurity. In the face of those who vociferously insist on crudely simplified, unidirectional ethnic, national and religious identities, Hamid passionately insisted that he is ‘a complete hybrid’ and a ‘mongrel’. He identified ‘underlying trends’ in the contemporary world towards ‘nostalgic tribal politics, rooted in the false belief in permanence’ and ‘living life backwards’. Having lived in California, New York, London and Lahore, Hamid remarked that “this desire for purity is something I take very personally”. He espied parallels between Pakistan and the UK, where nativist ideas about ‘pure’ national identity have rent the social fabric, created impossible categories of nationalist belonging, and prioritised security and surveillance at the expense of liberty, the rule of law and freedom of expression. In his work and in his political outlook, then, Hamid is interested in replicating the magic of the black doors: collapsing distance and difference and encouraging us to acknowledge our similarities and our shared vulnerabilities. He insisted that he writes ‘half novels’, which gift an interpretive capaciousness to the reader and allow these vital cross-boundary identifications. He based the nameless city in Exit West on his hometown of Lahore, but readers have identified it with other places on the verge of bloody conflict, including Warsaw in the 1920s and Sarajevo in the 1980s. For Hamid, the novel’s opening location is ‘the city you wish it to be’.

Hamid also made a fascinating comparison between the magical black doors in Exit West and the ubiquitous mobile phone. They are physically similar and both close the distances between people and give us immediate access to elsewhere – ‘each of us carries a black rectangle in our pockets’. Indeed, mobile technology is a key element of the novel, with mobile phone access cut off in the war-torn city and in the evocatively titled ‘dark London’ in which Nadia, Saeed and the other migrants are, siege-like, denied electricity, lighting and internet access.

For Hamid, contemporaneous challenges represent opportunities for a more just and equitable world. “It’s preposterous to tell people that the accident of where they were born should determine their life, or death”, and he insisted that, in 200 years, people will marvel at our current obsession with nations and borders. He cited the great strides towards equality for people regardless of gender, ethnicity and sexuality as great causes of optimism and he also articulated the universal benefits of migration: “Better music, better food – and the average sex life will improve.” “I don’t have a prescription for the future,” he mused, “but it could be a lot better than this.”

Hamid’s novel thus invites ‘the reader to imagine the migrant within themselves’. The passing of time makes us all migrants in our lives and he memorably described being an adult as being ‘a refugee from’ your own ‘childhood’. He observed that most people have an experience of feeling foreign or out of place in their own lives – you may be the only gay person in your family, or getting older may be disorientating you, for example – but this is a source of strength and insight that should be embraced. For Hamid, a radical identification with migrants is enabled by the novel as the supremely empathetic art form and it allows us to refuse narrowness and prejudice – and the violence they breed. “I’m a mixed-up, weird thing,” Hamid concluded – “but so is everybody else”. Nadia and Saeed thus stand as archetypes of two aspects of the human personality, with Saeed representing the instinctive searching for sameness and that which is homely and safe, while Nadia represents the longing for freedom, change and difference.

With many creative writing students in the audience, Hamid made a passionate case for what Professor Anthony Bale, Executive Dean of the School of Arts, described as ‘the pleasure and provocations’ of literature. The Booker Prize Foundation and Birkbeck share a commitment to breaking down the barriers that can prevent people accessing literature and culture and this hugely successful event, which saw two thousand free copies of Exit West distributed beforehand, further confirmed the ongoing benefits of this rewarding partnership.

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