Religion on trial

Dr Anton Schütz, senior lecturer at the School of Law reflects on the school’s annual ‘Law on Trial’ week, which this year focused on the theme of religion.lawontrial850x450From Monday 12 June to Friday 16 June, the School of Law, Birkbeck hosted the 2017 edition of its annual Law on Trial event.

The School of Law has staged a Law on Trial event each year since 2011, when it was introduced, on the basis of an original idea of Marinos Diamantides, by former Executive Dean Patricia Tuitt, who also contributed the formulation of the title. The theme for 2017 was ‘Religion on Trial’. Religion is generally understood as a human sphere with an existence and a concern very much of its own, though with a number of points of intersection with matters legal. Especially during the past two or three decades, matters of religion have provided an inexhaustible source for legal problems.

The first event of the week was taken by our key-note speaker, philosopher Akeel Bilgrami (Columbia University). Akeel led the audience through the problems that the political and legal philosophy of liberalism encounters in dealing with religion, and increasingly so since the beginning of the 21st century. Referring historically to a choice among the main topics of his own widely known writing (see his Secularism, Identity and Enchantment), foregrounding Gandhi’s example-based, rather than program-based political action, Salman Rushdie’s exemplification of the divide of artistic and religious imperatives in dealing with identity but also the author of the most celebrated political doctrine of liberal justice during the late 20th century, John Rawls, and his difficulty related to identity politics and deep religious commitments.

The programme of our second evening was placed under the sign of Rastafari religion, music, and forms of life, and was based on an idea from Patricia Tuitt. Author and poet Kwame Dawes was speaking and indeed — in his quotes from Bob Marley — also, if only for short moments, also singing, in a fabulous feat of bringing to life what Rastafari poetry calls the ‘Babylon system’ (‘vampire system, sucking the blood of the sufferah’), relating spiritual, political, geographical, iconographical, prophetic and cosmological features to spot issues of diaspora, oppression and liberation in a relation that is at once timeless and highly contemporary. Kwame Dawes‘study on Bob Marley, Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius, is celebrated all over the English-speaking world. The session was chaired by Oscar Guardiola-Rivera.

The session on Rastafarianism was followed by two sessions on topics related to current issues relating to Islam. The first, on Wednesday 14 June, convened by Birkbeck scholar Qudsia Mirza, staged the long-awaited and hotly disputed topic of Islamic Law and Gender Justice. Interpretations of the Qur’an and the Hadith literature within the classical Islamic tradition have famously given rise, based upon theological, legal and ethical principles, to a normative gender hierarchy. The teachings of Sharia are not a secret and neither are the challenges to them by reformist and progressive scholars. Islamic feminism in general, and the participants of our session in particular, have taken measure of the distance still to be bridged with respect to current notions of gender equality. How do reformists/feminists conceptualise notions of gender or equality? How, on the other hand, do issues of gender, widely discussed today, relate to the notion of an Islamic ‘purity of origin’ and to a discourse of authenticity? The panel contemplated the wide spectre of Western and non-Western religious and not-so-religious positions.

Rather different in its outlook was the second Islam-related session, Thursday 15 June , convened by a BBK PhD student Daniele D’Alvia (who also works in a Max-Planck-Institute in Germany) and chaired by Maria Aristodemou, dealt with the topic ‘Islamic Finance: the Middle East, Malaysia, and the West’. Once again, a highly qualified and bespoke-tailored international panel offered a fascinating debate dealing with conceptions of gharar and riba, in contrast to current Western conceptualisations of risk and interest. Doing so, it showed the presence of two different, almost opposing views on the relationship between current Western financial habits and the relevant Sharia rules. Some speakers highlighted the Sharia framework as a possible alternative to the current habits of the global financial markets (with their widely felt instability), something of a global therapy for the latter’s increasing, world-wide exposure to structural, self-engendered crises Other panel members saw the primary problem in the obstacles that Islamic populations are facing, when they are precluded from being clients of Western style global financial institutions, ascribing highest importance to the search of viable strategies of circumvention of Islamic rules of finance.

The fifth and last day of the series, on Friday 16 June , saw the launch event of a study, co-authored by Marinos Diamantides and Anton Schütz, two School of Law academics, that had been released that same week — Political Theology : Demystifying the Universal. Differing from the two preceding sessions, this focussed not on one particular religion opposed to other religions, but on the apparently non-religious question of the secular. With Stewart Motha (chair), Diamantides and Schütz tried to explain how the very stakes of Western-Christian religion have worked as conditions, rather than obstacles, to a society defining itself as secular (liberal, social) and its world-wide success and imitation. They commonly stressed that the secular religion of the West consists in an ongoing effort of managing continuing procedures. The return of explicit religious references under such circumstances was the subject of one ‘case-study’ (Diamantides), while Schütz, focussing on the theologoumenon of the Trinity and its geopolitical fate, explored the politico-legal relationship of Father and Son within the Christian Trinity in its Western evolution. The doctrine known as the ‘filioque’ has, through more than a millennium, transformed the Trinitarian God by endowing Father and Son, by assigning identical ‘rights’ to both, thereby implanting an unresolvable tension, a principle of intranquillity, at the very heart of the Western Christian divinity, altering it from a principle of being into its contrary, a principle of action.

Through the five days of Religion on Trial the public has been guided through: (1) a portrayal, by one of its international top representatives, of the divide between religion and politics in contemporary scholarly interpretation; (2) an in-depth depiction of the vital link of art and religion in Bob Marley’s poetry and its indispensable relationship to the unique and uniquely complex and attractive religious tradition of Rastafarianism, provided by the top international specialist on the matter; (3,4) two matters of extreme actuality in relation of contemporary Islam, the issue of the normative gender dissymmetry and that of contemporary modes of Islamic finance, both presented by highly qualified specialist panels; all rounded up in (5) a series of suggestions concerning the specifically Christian input within the Western model, in its religious as well as secular dimensions.

I would like to thank all of our guest speakers and panellists who helped to make the event such a success and greatly look forward to next year’s events.

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Law, Race and Brexit Britain

This blog was contributed by Devin Frank, a graduate of the School of Law at Birkbeck. He will soon be returning to the College as a PhD candidate and part-time seminar tutor.

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Credit: Cole Peters 2017.

On 15 May 2017 students and academics gathered for the launch of Birkbeck’s new research initiative, the Centre for Research on Race and Law, focusing on Law, Race and Brexit Britain.

After an introduction to the new Centre by the Acting Dean of the Law School, Dr Stewart Motha, and the co-director of the Centre, Dr Sarah Keenan, five speakers discussed how conceptions of race permeate law, politics and policy — not only in Britain, but across numerous jurisdictions.

At the heart of the discussion was an underlying paradox: conceptions of race and racism manifest through law, while law in itself is often a last defense against racism. Reflecting on my own experience working as a caseworker and paralegal, nowhere is this paradox more apparent than within the immigration systems of the Western world, particularly in the UK, US and Australia. Having endured the horrors of having to read and engage with Home Office refusal letters, it is abundantly clear that racism is not only tolerated within the diameters of immigration decision making, it is actively encouraged. When faced with a letter claiming that an individual’s immigration application is refused based on a legally accepted notion of race, the response of any lawyer is then to plead with the law, often in the form of an appeal or judicial review, to seek a legal remedy to the artificial and racist conception of law that allowed for injustice in the first place.

After Professor Patricia Tuitt, Executive Dean of the Law School, skillfully laid the foundation for considering how race and racism permeates all institutions, including that of law, the next four speakers showed how race matters in political discourse, immigration controls, EU trade policy and Brexit Britain. Tuitt’s opening talk had reminded us that the colonial dogma of race still infects the bureaucratic mechanisms of all aspects of society, including the university – a critique from which Birkbeck and the Law School are by no means immune.

Professor Gurminder Bhambra (University of Warwick) aptly highlighted the need to ‘get history right’ in order for concepts to have useful meanings — something that was an abysmal failure in the Brexit campaign. Bhambra began by examining the Brexit referendum data to debunk the myth that the Leave result was the resounding voice of ‘the left behind’ white working class. Rather, Bhambra showed that the vote to Leave was determined by property owners, pensioners, and well-off white middle class voters.

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The rhetoric of ‘taking back control’ lacks any kind of historical or political reality: Britain is not and never has been a nation, rather it is an imperial polity. British citizenship only came to refer primarily to people living in Britain in 1981, as this citizenship was formerly shared between Britain and its colonies. The British psychosis brought on by a fear of non-white migration goes to highlight the need for research initiatives such as the Centre for Research on Race and Law to further facilitate discussion based on sound research, with dignity and respect.

Following the EU referendum, it became all too common to ignore the underlining causes, divert attention away from blatant racism and xenophobia and pose a simpler question: ‘what about the economy?’. Professor Diamond Ashiagbor (Institute of Advanced Legal Studies) discussed the relationship between economic inequality, race and global trade in the context of ‘Empire 2.0’, encapsulated in Secretary of State for International Trade, Liam Fox’s, plan to negotiate new trade deals with Commonwealth countries in order to compensate for the EU trade that will be lost with Brexit. Ashiagbor argued that leaving the EU against the backdrop of rewriting/forgetting histories of empire, migration and race will exacerbate the internal economic equalities caused by open markets and global trade.

Drawing on ideas stemming from the political economist Karl Polanyi, Ashiagbor argued that markets only work without destroying society if they are constrained, and if social redistribution is facilitated. Pre-Brexit, such constraints and redistribution were put in place by domestic British law and also by EU law. The irony of Brexit racism, Ashiagbor argued, is that much of the labour migration upon which Britain has relied and against which the Leave campaign rallied, has long been fuelled by European plunder of the rest of the world. The sense of ‘the left behind’ voting for Brexit fails to capture the reality that the industrialised working class (both white and non-white) in the UK has long been supported by extraction from colonised states. Only through the plunder of resources and exploitation of labour from the Global South has the UK been able to build its welfare state.

Professor Iyiola Solanke (University of Leeds) sought to address the question: what of the forgotten groups that will be affected by Brexit? In the news and within mainstream discussion many rightly pose the question: ‘what status will EU citizens have in the UK and what status will UK citizens have in Europe?’. While this is a pertinent question, Solanke noted that it fails to address the situation of third country nationals, such as spouses and family members of European citizens in the UK, and so-called ‘Zambrano families’ (those who care for EU/UK citizens). While it seems likely that predominately white men, coming from the United States and earning high incomes working in London’s financial centres will find the legal categories to remain in the UK regardless of the ultimate Brexit deal, the future status of black parents from Nigeria, Ghana and Jamaica currently in the UK caring for their British children is much more ominous.

Finally Dr. Nadine El-Enany, Senior Law Lecturer and Co-Director of Centre for Research on Race and Law spoke about the importance of taking critical race scholarship seriously. With explicitly racist far-right movements on the rise in many parts of the world (including but not limited to the Brexit and Trump victories), El-Enany argued that it is more important than ever for legal academics not only to offer analyses which critique the role of law in upholding racism, but also to be creative about the strategic use of law for immediate survival of the most vulnerable in society. Drawing Mari Matsuda’s work, El-Enany argued that we have much to learn from critical race feminists who have written about the need to be strategic in relation to law in order to survive in a structurally violent world.  El-Enany recounted that during her own PhD studies she was told that race was not a useful analytical concept for scholarship on migration law, and that her intellectual development and psyche were significantly hindered by this falsity for many years. The new research Centre will lead the way, and provide a much needed space, to support the study of the relationship between race and law.

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Quest for justice leads student to Law degree at Birkbeck

Marie Hydara graduated with a LLB Law degree from Birkbeck on Thursday 27 April 2017

Marie with her daughter and mother

Marie with her daughter and mother

Although Law had always been a passion for Marie Hydara, who worked at the Supreme Court of the Gambia for two years after finishing school, it was a family tragedy which finally led her to enrol on a Certificate of Higher Education in Legal Methods at Birkbeck in 2011, aged 39, followed by a Law degree, starting in 2012.

Family tragedy

In 2004, Marie’s father (Deyda Hydara), a veteran Gambian journalist and fierce critic of the then dictator Jammeh (who was only ousted after he lost the election last December), was brutally killed.

Marie says: “Born and bred in Africa, I know how African leaders abuse and violate their people’s basic human rights and civil liberties to prolong their stay in office, but nothing could have prepared my family for what we went through after my dad’s cold and cowardly killing.

She goes on to explain: “My father ran his own local newspaper and was a reporter for Reporters without Borders and Agence France Press (AFP) for 30 years, and he used his paper as a tool for the voiceless and the oppressed. Only weeks prior to his death, along with fellow journalists, he had challenged a new media bill, which he believed was designed to ‘muzzle’ the press. He was threatened regularly, but he was determined to expose the regime’s abuse of human rights and continuous abuse of office. This generated him more enemies in the government and military.

“I was initially told about Birkbeck by a friend who worked in the day and went to classes in the evenings. I said I would think about it, but to be honest, at the time I was consumed with grief and frustration over the situation with our family’s quest for justice for dad, whose killers were known and still roamed the streets, without fear of ever getting caught. Eventually, I decided to transform all of my rage and frustration into something worthwhile – to learn what could be done – not only for my family, but for other families who would go through what we did.

“Apart from Birkbeck being a world-class institution, whose reputation precedes it, the hours were perfect for adults with a family or who worked during the day, and also had a passion to further their education. I believed that this was the perfect place for my quest.

“My passion was in Human Rights. I wasn’t seeking revenge for my father’s death, but a way to be able to work towards support for victims’ families, which I felt was lacking in our case. Other areas that interested me were Human Rights reforms, as I would argue there is the need for more robust reviews of the very mechanisms that have been put in place to address issues of extra judicial killings, enforced disappearances and torture in Africa. From a victim ‘s family perspective, I would argue that fact finding missions and even bilateral sanctions only “cushion up” dictators further. Hence I enjoyed any topics to do with freedoms and liberties. I was not disappointed when I got to the last year and studied International Human Rights and European Law, with lecturers and seminar tutors who were formidable and thorough. I also enjoyed lectures from politicians, barristers and judges, who shared a wealth of knowledge with us – the students. At Birkbeck, class seminars were enjoyable and at times topics provoked heated debates, where complex subjects became fascinating.”

Coping with an illness

“While studying at Birkbeck, I was diagnosed with Lupus, which left me with inflammation in my joints, making prolonged typing and writing difficult. Luckily by the end of the second year, I had received enormous help from the Disability Office whose advice was very useful, as was the equipment they helped me get to ease my pain and not exacerbate my condition further.”

Family affair

“Another challenging time at Birkbeck was while I had to help my eldest daughter to prepare for her GCSEs and A-levels, as well as do my own studying. When she successfully got into Sussex University in Brighton (doing a BA in Media and Literature), I was alone at home with her younger sister. The dropping off and picking up from school was difficult, and in the last few months of my degree my mum came over from Africa to help with caring for the little one while I was studying.”

The benefits of studying at Birkbeck

“Studying at Birkbeck has helped my personal development on so many different levels. I became more confident to be able to represent my family during press conferences, interviews, meeting with representatives and lawyers of Human Rights Organizations and journalism NGOs. I find myself more positive, self-reliant, full of integrity, enthusiasm and resilience to be able to help my family, and especially myself, in working towards closure.

“I have also improved my academic skills, where I was lacking in ways I never even realised. Some of this was done through a lot of workshops, seminars and lectures (outside study hours), which were extremely helpful. It is all down to collective efforts of dedicated lecturers who always go beyond the extra mile.”

Future plans

“My time at Birkbeck has helped me a great deal in cementing the course I want to pursue, and in fulfilling a lifelong passion. I believe, with Birkbeck’s help, I am prepared, able and willing to pursue a career in human rights in support of victims’ families, who have lost loved ones through extra judicial killings, torture and other human rights violations. My job prospects will be even greater when I complete my Masters, which I plan to study at Birkbeck, and my Legal Practice Course.

“Birkbeck is the place where the impossible becomes possible. The College is the best at working with students to prepare them for a successful future. Overall it is the best place for adult higher education, where the younger students are welcome as well. In short, Birkbeck is for anyone with a drive and passion to achieve their ambition. If they either work in the day or have a young family and struggle with childcare, then Birkbeck is the place to be, for they provide students with the support they need to achieve their goals.”

Making connections

“I have had the pleasure of meeting and knowing wonderful people – lecturers whose tenacity for teaching is rarely found; their dedication I found intriguing; the support provided for the students is like no other. I was blessed enough to meet colleagues who have become great mates after working together as teams for group work or on projects and despite our different backgrounds and shortcomings we developed strong ties and made great friends and have stayed in touch after university.”

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Man Booker at Birkbeck: Colm Tóibín

This post was contributed by Birkbeck alumnus and staff member, Dr Ben Winyard

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On 17 October, in a genial, expansive conversation, Colm Tóibín discussed his Man Booker Prize nominated novel The Testament of Mary (2012) with Birkbeck’s Professor of Creative Writing, Russell Celyn Jones. All of the novels discussed at the Man Booker at Birkbeck event, since its inauguration in 2011, have been set in, or concerned with, the past: The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (discussed in 2011), The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst (discussed in 2013), Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (discussed in 2014) and How To Be Both by Ali Smith (discussed in 2015). Although not set in the past, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (discussed in 2012) proffers a dystopian, alternative present, so it too is concerned with reimagining time. If the other novels covered diverse periods, moving from the rollicking Renaissance to the deadly Reformation and on to the austere 1920s, the bling and clamour of the 1980s and the contemporary digital moment, The Testament of Mary takes us back to the moment at which Christianity was born, an historical event heavily obscured by accreted layers of myth, competing proofs and intervening centuries of weighty theological debate, doctrine and practice. All of these novels are concerned with testimony, authority and history; in particular, who has the authority to speak and which stories become legitimate and enter the official record as ‘History’ – and which are forgotten or even derided, suppressed and erased.

For Tóibín, the task is no less than recovering, or reimagining, the full voice of Mary, the mother of Jesus and the Mother of God or Theotokos, the ‘Birth Giver of God’, in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, among others. Tóibín imagines her less-than-exalted, oblique responses to the life and death of her son and the foundational moments that articulated and established a radical, world-changing new theology and movement. Tóibín’s Mary is not the benign, silent icon we might know from Renaissance paintings or alabaster icons in hushed churches, with her sympathetic half-smile, commiserating upraised eyes and benevolently-inclined head. This is a human – perhaps all too-human – Mary, who wrestles with grief, incomprehension, anger, disappointment and guilt. Mary is deeply ambivalent about her adult son, who, in one of the novel’s most visceral moments, publically rejects her, while she is insultingly dismissive of his followers, describing them as maladjusted miscreants and dropouts – men ‘unable to look a woman in the face’. The two disciples – possibly St Paul and St Thomas, although Tóibín is ambiguous – who hover over and guard her in Ephesus, after the crucifixion, earn her particular opprobrium; she even threatens to stab them if they dare to sit in the chair of her dead husband (and Mary’s refusal to understand herself in divine terms is Tóibín’s quietly devastating challenge to Roman Catholic theology – there is no Annunciation or Nativity in this story).

Tóibín discussed the influence of Greek tragedy on the work, particularly as he was teaching the subject during the novel’s genesis. He wanted to present Mary as a Medea or Elektra figure: a woman who only has power when she speaks. Tóibín readily conceded that the anger of Mary, which constitutes a powerful undercurrent in the story, is representative of the historical anger of women marginalised in, and excluded from, the Church. In the novel, the truth of Mary’s experience is modified by the disciples, who continually interrogate her while using her testimony selectively to build a theology, kindle a movement and accrue personal power. They are uneasy about her stubborn refusal to adhere to the world-altering version of events they are promulgating, although they are painfully cognisant of their need for her as a foundation of their faith and power. ‘Their enormous ambition’, Tóibín observed, ‘is to make these words [of the Gospel] matter’, while Mary is lucid in her understanding that her experience – her testimony – will be discounted and unrecorded. Tóibín was wry about literary-critical focus on unreliable narrators, describing Mary as ‘the most reliable narrator you’ll get’. Mary is clear-eyed about her reaction to key events and the novel’s seminal moment is her fleeing the scene of the Crucifixion, in fear for her life, yet full of shame. To readers who demur at this apparently inhuman act of maternal abandonment – which also muddies the veracity of Christianity’s foundational moment of universal redemption – Tóibín observed that he is uninterested in writing about ‘most people’ or ‘normal people’ – ‘I only write the exception.’

He also confessed that Mary bolting from Christ’s death solved the technical problem of how to present the Crucifixion. For Tóibín, the novel is ‘a secular form […] filled with things […]. It’s really, really bad at divine intervention.’ He joked that it’s hard to imagine a Jane Austen novel in which the action of the plot is suddenly rerouted by God’s intercession. The two other Biblical miracles in the novel – the turning of water into wine at Cana and the resurrection of Lazarus – are shadowy and problematic: at the wedding in Cana, the miracle is made somewhat absurd and undermined by Mary’s sceptical first-hand witnessing; while the raising of Lazarus presents a melancholy spectacle, as Lazarus is unable to convey what he has witnessed in death – another example of silenced or discarded testimony in the novel – and those around him are too frightened to ask. Furthermore, Lazarus ‘will have to die twice’, Tóibín pointed out, making his resurrection feel, in some respects, akin to a curse or punishment.

Tóibín was raised in the Roman Catholic Church and he described his youthful recitation of the Rosary as his ‘introduction to beauty in language’. For Irish Catholics in the middle of the twentieth century, as for many Christians in different places and different periods, the Virgin mattered a great deal, as she had suffered human pain and so would listen and respond kind-heartedly to the prayers of ordinary sinners. ‘Nobody prayed to God the Father’, Tóibín wryly observed. Tóibín thus felt a keen understanding of the need of early Christians to worship a mother figure. In the novel, Mary flees across the Mediterranean to Ephesus (now in Turkey), the site in ancient times of the Temple of Artemis – one of the Wonders of the World – and the locus of goddess worship. Mary secretly keeps a likeness of Artemis, finding comfort in the iconic mother figure she will herself become. Indeed, it was at Ephesus in 431, at one of the Ecumenical Councils of the early Church, that Mary was declared Theotokos and the way was cleared for her veneration and worship. For Tóibín, then, Ephesus is the place in which one form of instinctive, almost primordial, goddess worship was institutionally and theologically elided by another, with the object of adoration remaining, in its essential features, unchanged.

Tóibín discussed his own experiences of all-male religious confraternities, including his Jesuit education at a single-sex boarding school, where students were taught to avert their eyes from women. This experience gave Tóibín his sense of what he called ‘men grouped together, being misfits’ – as Mary contemptuously sees her son’s followers. Tóibín was gently satirical about the absurdity of all-male fraternities such as the Roman Catholic priesthood, recalling a visit to St. Peter’s in Rome, when he secretly observed a flock of male prelates silently divested of their gorgeous arraignment by a company of alacritous nuns. Celyn Jones was interested in other biographical and Irish elements of this apparently historical novel, jovially espying traces of Ireland in Tóibín’s description of the ‘dampness’ of a home in first-century Palestine. Tóibín gamely acknowledged this and other near anachronisms that have been pointed out to him, but firmly asserted that there is ‘no such thing as a historical novel’, as ‘the past is a bit abstract’ and ‘contemporary concerns enter in’. In particular, Tóibín discussed how the novel was informed by his interest in the emotional aftermath of terrorist violence during the Troubles and other conflicts between governments and armed resistance groups, particularly the grief of the families of suicide bombers. Tóibín suggested that there may be some interesting historical parallels between Christ’s fanatical early followers – one need only think of the grisly deaths that Christian martyrs willingly embraced – and self-immolating terrorists active now.

Inevitably, there was interest from the interviewer and the audience about public reactions to such a controversial novel. Although affable and droll throughout, Tóibín was steely when asked about his right to pen such a story, absolutely asserting his liberty to write about religious subjects. He joked that there was no outcry ‘in pagan England’ and that the reception ‘wasn’t really troublesome in Ireland’, where a more avowedly liberal cultural environment has been fostered. He remarked that the greatest outrage came in the United States, where people picketed the theatre where the story – which began life as a one-woman play – was first performed. Tóibín sympathetically observed that the emphasis on identity in American society means people ‘take enormous exception’ to anything they feel is undermining their individuality. Although the outcry was relatively muted – ‘there was no fatwa’, Tóibín jested – he seemed entirely uninterested in becoming a poster boy for vociferous debates about religion and freedom of speech: ‘It wasn’t brave’, writing the novel he said – ‘it was opportunistic’. If his models were Antigone and Medea – women ‘strung out with fear – and bravery’ who are obligated to speak the truth to power – Tóibín evidently doesn’t see his work in the same heroic vein. He demurred at the idea of deliberately seeking to offend readers – he found it particularly difficult to depict the brutality and violence of the Crucifixion – but he found himself compelled to tell such a ‘dramatic’ story. ‘Where there is faith, there must be doubt’ and the literary imagination thrives in the spaces of silence and ambiguity that inevitably accompany any official historical retelling of events.

For would-be writers in the audience, including students on Birkbeck’s creative writing programmes, Tóibín joked that a recent root canal treatment had felt akin to the writing process (although he admitted that this simile may have been born of the Valium he was given by his dentist). He emphasised that writing involves ‘all the dull, dull, dull drilling of detail’ and that pattern, form and structure may only become apparent at the end of the writing process. He admitted that ‘technique is not enough’ and, although he was willing to describe writing as ‘mystery’, it is ‘not transcendentally’ so, he insisted. For Tóibín, the mystery is how ‘An idea, an image, a memory or a thing becomes, of its own accord, a rhythm’ and he urged students to write what they feel compelled to write. Writing thus emerges as a process of accretion and problem-solving: ‘Every sentence becomes a way of solving the problem the previous sentence gave you’.

This was the sixth Man Booker at Birkbeck event and this sprightly exchange confirmed yet again the success of this ongoing, rewarding partnership. As Hilary Fraser, Executive Dean of Birkbeck’s School of Arts, observed in her opening remarks, the Booker Prize Foundation and Birkbeck both share an ongoing, deep commitment to broadening knowledge and bringing the best of contemporary culture to the widest possible audience.

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