The Stones of the University of Oxford

By Professor Danny Dorling.

‘Oxford’ by Isabella Lill

The stones that make up Oxford University are dense, much denser than any normal stone. These stones are more than their base material. They are not just the Corallian Limestone first cut in Oxfordshire quarries in the 1300s and transported into the city by ox cart; they have long since metamorphosed into something far more potent. A mineral that can apparently endlessly suck in money and sweat, labour and blood, while not seeming to undergo any significant change to its outward appearance. The stone from those same quarries was used to build Eton College, Blenheim Palace, and Windsor Castle; flourishing there too with later rises in those institutions riches, but not quite to the extent that the stones of the University of Oxford have changed over time from within. For a start, there were far more of them in Oxford. By 1756, the University was enormous, but what happened within was largely hidden from sight.

Map of Oxford used to illustrate a list of Oxford professors of poetry from 1708-1999.

The University of Oxford was not built as the giant medieval cathedrals in mainland Europe were – designed to tower over the surrounding countryside and inspire awe, wonder, and subservience. The University was built to be hidden away in a valley, a secret hollow between the hills, a gravel bank at the confluence of two small rivers. It was built to be defended, a place in which to hide away from the material world – the world outside which existed to serve it and its higher purposes; its motto: Dominus illuminatio mea (the Lord is my light).

Over time, the stones grew denser as the financial surplus grew greater. The local quarries were emptied out. Far away, in Wales, coal and slate mines were slowly emptied by children and adults working in the dark. Farms were bequeathed to colleges with names such as Jesus. For centuries, the farm labourers’ efforts filled the colleges’ coffers and slowly further saturated the wealth within its walls.

The culture of getting something for nothing, continuously and in perpetuity, became well established. The plantations of Ireland and later of the empire were brought into the levy of many of the colleges and became part of a global flood of tribute. The stones grew heavier; the towers rose higher and spread across the gravel bank.

painting of Shotover Hill, Oxford
‘View of Oxford from Shotover Hill in Floodtime, When the Water was Out, 10th January’ by John Baptist Malchair, 1791.

In Brideshead Revisited, Waugh describes 1920s Oxford as “a city of aquatint”. (Aquatint is a printing technique that produces areas of tone, rather than lines, so that colours blend more easily.) When the  British Empire was at its peak, the University was populated by students whose wealth was often derived from their family’s investments in that empire. However, Oxford’s intake changed as the British Empire’s power waned, triggering the subsequent increase in income equality that saw a rising proportion of state school admissions to the University. Oxford, both the city and university, began to change.

graph showing undergraduates admitted to the University of Oxford from state schools 1927-2018
Hann, C. and Dorling, D. (2019) A Changed Institution, The Oxford Magazine, No.411, pp.4-6, 0th Week. Michaelmas Term 2019.

By the 1980s the tide had turned again, away from growing equality, away from a rising state school intake, and away from a diminishing Oxford influence on the nations of the UK. Oxford returned to the building up of unequal wealth, defence of snobbery and eugenic thinking that only a few had great potential. 

Recently, it’s become apparent that we are close to seeing the end of this trend. Between 2019 and 2020, the number of British undergraduate offer-holders rose from 60.5% to 69%, with the 2020 figure expected to translate into 67% of places. However, although these figures look promising, we must account for the fact that very few of these state school students come from normal homes when measured by income. The median child in the UK grows up in a household that survives on a total household income of £21,840 per annum after tax and before paying for housing, food, travel, clothes and all other essentials.

In Britain today, a child’s A level results are mainly determined by the school they attend – not by inherent ability, or by how hard they work. A child of below average ability (in the second quartile at age eight, to be precise) is three times more likely to receive AAA+ at A level if they are sent to a private school than a child of above average ability who is sent to a state school. That child of privilege is six times more likely to receive AAA+ than a child of similar ability who is not wealthy. As a result, England’s ‘top universities’ – which require such A level results for admission – are more likely to offer places to the less able children of the rich.

I, too, was a median child. As a boy in the 1970s, I would play on Shotover Hill. The trees had grown high by then and there were no clear views of the University. The city had grown up around it. More people now worked in the car factory at the foot of the hill than served at college tables, but the University continued to accumulate wealth and become progressively more cloistered. In the 1980s, the Bursar of Magdalen College built a moat around his college lands to keep teenagers like me out. In his memoirs, he wrote about those locals he saw as miscreants, which also recount his predecessor visiting a local school in Temple Cowley and pointing out a boy with the ideal servile demeanour to work in his college. This boy would later become the College’s head porter. By contrast, as I grew up in the city throughout the 1980s, Oxford gave succour to teenagers who – their egos expanded and confidence boosted – would later become prime minister after prime minister after prime minister. The stones had infected their minds. I later learned that what I saw was not new, but rather part of an unbroken chain that goes back centuries. A few months ago, I heard the word ‘miscreants’ yet again being used by a college fellow to describe Oxford residents.

Boris Johnson, when he was a teenager in the city, was inspired by  Margaret Thatcher – the then prime minister. Thatcher, in turn, looked up at Winston Churchill’s portrait and saw her destiny whilst studying in Oxford in the 1940s. Churchill, similarly, looked to the Oxford-educated prime minister of his teenage years, Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, when he was in Sandhurst in the 1880s. Cecil, in turn, looked to Robert Peel – the first modern Conservative, according to A. J. P. Taylor – for inspiration whilst a teenager studying at Christ Church (Oxford) in 1847. Peel himself, as a teenager at Christ Church in 1805, had Pitt the Younger as a role model. And today, a teenager amid the stones of Oxford University will be looking up at Johnson and feeling the very same weight of destiny upon their shoulders – that which continues the unbroken line whereby a tiny few rule over the many. 

Those who taught the generation now in power in Britain were, at the very same time, building up endowments and laying down wine for their successors – wine often still being drunk today. They were defending and deepening their justification for a place apart. It was a time when things could have changed for the better but, instead, Britain became progressively more cloistered, more divided. The colleges took in more women and more children from state schools, but the aim was to co-opt and cultivate, not to diversify. The progressives of the past were now few and far between. The stones of Oxford became a Petri dish for the new, more brutal, more callous future. Today that could change again – and possibly for the better – but to change requires facing up to what you are and what you produce, and knowing what lies deep within the stones. The same stones which were mainly shaped by local people to build palaces for newcomers to live and be educated in for the good of themselves.

As inequalities in income and wealth began to rise again, Oxford University accepted many more millions in donations, in return for putting the name of a man on a building. In 2017, Bo Rothstein, a then Professor of Government and Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, resigned from the University citing Blavatnik’s donation to Trump’s inauguration, which he called “incomprehensible and irresponsible”. In 2019, the University accepted a £150 million donation from Stephen Schwarzman, current CEO of the Blackstone Group and former chairman and Head of Mergers and Acquisitions at Lehman Brothers. Questioning the legitimacy of the ways in which Blavatnik and Schwarzman made and continue to make their money results in threats, most recently from the latter billionaire’s spokesman. Today, the old men’s money is used to renew the old stones.

There have been many times in the past when the city of Oxford and its people would rally against the desires of the University; however, Oxford City Council now has a leaflet that informs residents about cheaper areas outside of the city centre, while colleges continue to expand their accommodation in central Oxford. But who will come to live beneath the new stones, and what will they be taught? The slogan on the leaflet reads, ‘Building a world class city for everyone’. But the city of Oxford is increasingly for the select few.

The future of Oxford could be so different to what the University has planned for the city. Oxford could be the greenest city in Europe, but because of the 40,000 people who drive over its greenbelt each day, it is one of the least green. Today, as its University supports the construction of a motorway to Cambridge, the city serves to exemplify just how ignorant people in power can be made by money.  It is so important to unearth the University’s past, to show how much it has contributed to and profited from exploitation, and to illustrate how it is currently in danger of becoming the pet project of Trump’s billionaires because if we don’t, we may not see a better future in our lifetimes. The Oxford-Cambridge Expressway need not be built.

Oxford City Council leaflet explaining the Oxford Link
Oxford City council leaflet published in 2019.

A plaque occasionally appears on a college wall acknowledging the fact that a college building was financed through slavery, but that is about as far as change around here goes. The stone statue of Rhodes has not fallen; it remains the highest statue on the high street. The University will not be able to make any really significant strides in access and diversity until those in charge acknowledge the problem with putting Rhodes on a pedestal. Although the proportions of state school and ethnic minority students that Oxford admits at undergraduate level are on the rise, changes such as those which have recently come into effect at elite Scottish Universities – which now admit students from lower socio-economic backgrounds with ABB while requiring those with higher socio-economic backgrounds  to gain AAA+ – tend to still be viewed as an impossibility at Oxford. 

map showing changes in urban cover in Oxford from pre-war to 2013
Eco-systems.org.uk

Oxford is built on a swamp. It is built on the land between and around the rivers. The settlement was here long before the University appropriated its name, and the settlement will be here long after the collection of buildings in its centre are no longer the apex of such money and power. Our world is at peak inequality. In Oxford today, the most common way to die for young people is to die homeless. Most homeless people who recently died in Oxford went to school here; they were locals. As adults, many lived in hiding, including in tents in the undergrowth. 

Oxford University is changing. It is waking up to its past and, slowly, some within it are writing a better version of its history. Many of the portraits on its walls are being taken down, partly to try to hide the culpability, partly in the hope of creating something better. The people of this city are beginning to imagine what a world class home for everyone who lives and works in it would actually look like. One in which people who worked in the city could also live in the city, as almost all of the car workers did when I was a child. The University could decide that there is more to having a soul than simply selling something when the price is right. 

It’s time to begin to lighten the stones. It’s time to work out how to be good without believing that it is mutually exclusive to being rich. Dear Oxford University; take down the statue of Rhodes and move him indoors, where he can be looked down on rather than up to. Begin to question the stories you have been told, because far too many are untrue. Work out how to finance the University of Oxford from sources that do not include the most disreputable of donors, investments in the most unethical of funds, or some of the highest university fees in Europe. If another source of finance is needed to preserve the old buildings, then look to the tourists – they will come to see the stones for many decades to come. Plan for a city that is green and open, not grey and exclusive. Accept students from normal backgrounds again, from median income households and average state schools. Ask how reparations can be made for all that has been done that was wrong. There is no need to hide behind the stones anymore, unless you are ashamed of what is within.

Danny Dorling is an English social geographer and the Halford Mackinder Professor of Geography at the School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford.

“Be a passenger”: An interview with ACS Access Officer Mary Bonsu

Common Ground Journal Co-Editor Neetu Singh speaks with ACS Access Officer Mary Bonsu about BLM, the ‘BAME’ acronym, and what Oxford University should do to support Black students.

Neetu Singh: What does the Black Lives Matter movement mean to you?

Mary Bonsu: I think that the Black Lives Matter movement is multifaceted, but at its core, it is about dismantling and destroying the insidious racism within our society at all levels. It is a call for justice. It is the people’s recognition of all the black lives that have been wrongfully lost at the hands of police brutality because the system refuses to acknowledge the value of their lives for us. The movement tells society, those black lives do hold value and you will recognise that worth.

Beyond the very necessary and essential calls for systemic change, the Black Lives Matter movement has provided a platform for black voices that are often ignored and silenced by the system. Dealing with the violence and evil of racism on a day to day basis is beyond tiring. BLM allows black people to express the pain that we have endured for generations through protest, through art, through social media, through their jobs and so forth.

Mary Bonsu / produced by Deniz de Barros
Mary Bonsu / produced by Deniz de Barros

NS: What should the Black Lives Matter movement mean to non-black allies?

MB: Black people and non-black people do not relate to the Black Lives Matter movement in the same way because having your very existence attacked and devalued is different from supporting the demographic whose existence is under attack. However, in terms of the goals of the Black Lives Matter movement, the movement should mean the same as it does to black people for non-black allies. Non-black allies should want protests, should want change, should want accountability. These are goals that are universal and should be desirable for anyone in society.

NS: Should we dismantle the ‘BAME’ acronym? Why?

MB: The term BAME is infuriating because it does not make sense in any way, nor is it helpful. It is a title that minorities have just accepted because it has been the authoritative norm. BAME essentially means anyone who is not white. An array of identities that face a variety of issues are bundled together. It confuses and angers me because it is so obvious that addressing anti-blackness without specifically looking at black experiences is illogical.

There’s this myth that the differences in the difficulties faced by minority communities are nuanced. There’s an attitude that “ah it’s all racism either way”. This stems from the fact that minorities can relate to each other on broader issues of racism and colourism. We share a lot of common pain and frustration. This has led to a lazy approach by institutions when addressing racism.

You must be specific about the causes of the problems that each community faces. There are issues such as police brutality which are particularly prevalent in the black community. The only way to address that is to recognise the differences in history and other factors and attitudes surrounding gender, sexuality, wealth distribution, and education between minorities. The issues that we face can vary to a large degree and need to be addressed through an honest and specific appreciation of the roots of those issues.

I have seen some defend the term BAME saying that it is helpful for data collection purposes. Oxford’s admissions statistics show exactly why that is not true. It is often a way for institutions such as Oxford to claim that they are diverse whilst the “B” in “BAME” is on mute.

NS: In three words, what should white people and people of Asian and ethnic minority backgrounds do to help the Black community?

MB: Be a passenger.

Black people are steering this movement. You are the passengers. Where “allies” often go wrong is that they try to dictate the movement.  Black people know what we face on a day to day basis. Black people know what anti-black racism is. Black people know what we need from our society to address this. Do not talk over us. Do not hijack the moment. Do not try to silence our voices. Do not instruct black people on how they should be dealing with racism. Do not ask black people to call out racism in a “nice” way that is palatable to your tastes. Do not demonise black people for calling out racism in a public way because you want us to be silent about racism so that you can comfortably ignore it.

In 2020, the concepts of racial privilege are well known and education is widely available – if you still don’t know how you can use your privilege to help black people, then do your Googles and educate yourself. When a black person does choose to share their experience with you, sit back and listen, do not distance yourself from the racism. Think about how your behaviour has contributed to their experience and how you can make an immediate change in your life on a personal level. A lot of people think that Black Lives Matter is only important on the macro level. Of course, we need to keep demanding the big things – that those (Jonathan Mattingly, Brett Hankinson, and Myles Cosgrove) who murdered Breonna Taylor should be brought to justice, for example. However, consider your day to day behaviour, your interactions with the black people around you. Are you emulating Black Lives Matter on a daily basis? Or are you speaking over black women in your tutorials? Or are you assuming that a black person is aggressive by default? Or are you weaponising your tears and mental health when your racist behaviour is called out? Or are you encouraging anti-blackness within your community?

There is no point calling on governments and institutions to change if you refuse to let go of the racist behaviour that contributes to the racism that kills black people every day. Acting as if black people are aggressive or criminal by default when you hold your belongings tight when walking by a group of young black men is the same kind of racism that allowed Derek Chauvin to kneel on George Floyd’s neck for nearly 8 minutes.

Mary Bonsu / produced by Deniz de Barros
Mary Bonsu / produced by Deniz de Barros

NS: Common Ground Journal is an anti-racist and anti-colonial student publication and we work to decolonise academia within and outside of Oxford University. However, we are aware that the community that disproportionately suffers in representation at this university are students from Black African and Caribbean backgrounds. As one of the ACS’s Access Officers, what changes would you like to see in Oxford for Black students?

MB: The University needs to address the on-course experience of black students. Until the University makes an effort to ensure that Oxford is a safe space for black students, you are never going to see the representation needed. Black prospective students will continue to hear about our experiences and avoid Oxford. Microaggressions are triviliased and ignored. Racial slurs are said against black students and there is no disciplinary action. Whole JCRs bully and demonise individuals for calling out racism. The ACS is relied on as a crutch to compensate for these experiences as you often hear from many people, including myself: “There’s not that many black people at Oxford but ACS is active so that makes up for it”.

First of all, the ACS is a student-led society, and expecting students who are studying for degrees to do all the work to provide a safe space for black students is an injustice. It affects our degrees and contributes to the attainment gap. In addition, it is psychologically exhausting, and it is not as if Oxford provides any targeted welfare to address that burden that we carry, as there are no black councillors available. Second of all, there is only so much ACS can do. The University themselves needs to do more to ensure that people are educated on microaggressions and how they have a hugely adverse effect on the day to day life of a black student at Oxford. They need to ensure that there are people who understand our experiences of disciplinary boards so that microaggressions are not dismissed and trivialised as merely “banter.” There needs to be more done in terms of providing targeted welfare for black students.

The University does not understand us and has not made an effort to do so. I was so disappointed and embarrassed as an Oxford student to read about how the University condemned the decision to disinvite Amber Rudd but made no attempt to understand why so many black particularly Caribbean students had an issue with the invitation in the first place. I was so embarrassed to read the Vice Chancellor’s recent comments surrounding the Rhodes Must Fall movement. The University proves more and more everyday how out of touch it is. I would like to see it do more to understand the issues that we face.

Dual Lives

By Abigail Allan.

When I first found out that I had been offered an interview at the University of Oxford, I bought my train ticket immediately. Doing so emptied my bank account by spending one month’s wages from my Saturday job on a single train ticket – and sacrificing my ability to have some semblance of a healthy diet that month. I’d saved for months in case I got the opportunity to have an interview at Oxford. That train ticket cost the same as my mother’s monthly food budget for a family of four.  

I grew up in the Black Country, more specifically Wolverhampton, one of the most deprived areas in the UK. Today, I study at the best university in the world. I spend half my time living a life of wealth and vast knowledge; the other half in a town where I spent most of my teenage years living in working poverty. 

‘Poverty’ is a difficult concept to explain to my peers in Oxford. It is an intangible, slippery thing, with no single, government-certified definition in the UK. It is a complex problem that cannot be quantified into one single figure or statement. Such attempts, however, have been made. Arbitrary figures, like the £16,000 household income ‘poverty line’ attempt to provide a definition: if your income is below this, you live in poverty, anything above, and you’re ok. But poverty is relative. It can mean not being able to afford enough food to stay healthy, not being able to afford sanitary products, not being able to afford to travel to school or work, being deprived of opportunities, and facing financial fears every day. Living in poverty can also mean, as in my case, living in working poverty, where your parents work full-time but still do not earn enough to live comfortably. Above all, it means being marginalised from mainstream society. 

‘Liminal Space’ by Catrin Williams

My experience of poverty was most acutely felt in terms of food poverty, but poverty reached its fingers into every aspect of my life, forcing me to spend years darning up tears in my £7 Primark jeans so I could wear them until they quite literally fell apart. This is irreconcilable with the pressure I now feel to buy a new dress for every black tie event, which has now become a social norm in my life. Now, eating in Hall every day is a far cry from the food poverty of my past, and yet people at my college complain about hall food being ‘shit’ when we get given a three-course meal for £2.50 every night. When I came here for interviews, I was thrilled to see vegetables, a feeling which now seems pathetic and shameful, something to be hidden. My life in college now is a far cry from being put on Free School Meals during Sixth Form because I was medically underweight and unable to concentrate in lessons. 

I can also recognise the nuances of my own experience of poverty. My place at a grammar school was a privilege, which no doubt gave me opportunities I would not otherwise have had. However, this does not negate my mother carefully saving to buy my uniform, or the miles I had to walk to find somewhere warm to revise when we couldn’t afford to heat the house. Nor does it negate the evenings I spent sat in my Sixth Form Common Room, eating oats heated with water whilst I tried to ignore the pangs of hunger and concentrate on my homework. Poverty and privilege are not mutually exclusive. When you experience poverty, it bleeds into the privileged aspects of your life, altering the way you experience everything.  

So, how do you reconcile coming from poverty with studying at one of the most prestigious universities in the world, where you arguably now belong to a group in which you are among some of the least marginalised groups of society? For someone from a background like mine, just meeting people who were ‘normal’, that is, comfortably middle class, was – and still is – something of a jarring shock. It still shocks me when someone’s parents send them money for new shoes, when at home I wore my shoes until they literally fell apart. How can I even begin to explain poverty whilst sat in Oxford, surrounded by the immense wealth and privilege, of which we are all now a part? Privilege is inherent in the very institution, the buildings themselves, the artworks on the walls, and the books we use in our college libraries. Poverty is exceptionally difficult to visualise and imagine if it is not something you have experienced: this is especially true when we are comfortably sat in our university buildings. 

Although the days of my deepest poverty are behind me, poverty is not truly something of my past. Instead, I feel as if I am living dual lives. I can’t forget my past, not only because it is something which shaped and made me, but because it is not really my past at all. My ‘Oxford experience’ cannot be parcelled neatly into distinct term times, separated from the vacations by a mark on the calendar and a journey home. The bursary I receive during term time in order to support myself is not something I use solely during term, but something which I carefully save, in order to make sure that I have enough to eat healthily throughout the vacations – and so that I can feed my family too. Whilst I buy my groceries during term time, I am constantly thinking of my family at home, and am constantly feeling guilty about how my monthly groceries bill is higher than my family’s is for three people. I am also not completely removed from my past because my brother is still living it: he is still in school, in the same position I was in two years ago, unable to buy food or a provisional driving license so he has ID, or to go out with his friends to the cinema, something which a lot of people take for granted. So, I send him money, because I want him to have these ‘normal’ experiences of growing up. 

I become most acutely aware of this liminal space I now occupy when I think of who I now seem to be to the outside world. People laughingly call me middle class because I did a prestigious internship over the summer. I am of course incredibly grateful for this opportunity, but I am also intimately aware that receiving this internship – an internship which was exclusively for students living below the poverty line– was based on the fact that I had to apply for it, work hard to get the necessary experience on my CV, and perform well at interviews. I received this opportunity in part because of my years of gaining work experience by volunteering in disadvantaged spaces, because these spaces would provide me with a heated place to be for a day, and, if I was lucky, a meal, or at least caffeine and distractions, to suppress the pangs of hunger. I have always strived to get such internships and opportunities because I have a constant drive for financial security, because in no way can I afford to not have a plan when I graduate. 

At heart, I feel I am still working class, but I am aware that I don’t appear that way on the outside – something which now makes me something of an outcast in my hometown. And yet, at the same time, I’m too working class to fit in at Oxford University. I’m not quite enough either way. Class isn’t something that is necessarily static, but is one component of our complex identities, a label that people apply to each other and themselves, both to define their own experiences, but also to differentiate themselves from other people. And it feels like that at this university, the label of ‘class’ is employed much more to exclude people who don’t fit into the history of the university. 

The university has focused so much in recent years on Access & Outreach, which is fantastic – and I have personally benefited from access initiatives, such as the UNIQ summer school, which is what I cite as my main reason for applying to Oxford. However, there is still so much more to be done, starting with a focus on Inreach, not just Outreach. The UNIQ summer school showed me an Oxford which was full of people like me, who were poor but were keen to learn, and struggled daily to make it. But the real Oxford isn’t quite like that: everyday I’m surrounded by people from walks of life I cannot possibly image, with financial security I could never dream of. This is of course not entirely a bad thing: I have learnt so much from these people, and I understand that money isn’t everything – but it sure does help. The problem lies within the classist structures of the UK, entrenched in the university, and the lack of social awareness amongst students and even amongst staff who work in Access or Financial & Academic Support. Quite often, even these staff members do not understand the realities of poverty – but how could they, if they have never experienced it? Fundamentally, people like me will not feel comfortable in this university until the University truly understands the diverse realities of its students’ lives.

I have so often been told that people like me need to come here to change Oxford for the better in ten or twenty years time – but what about our own experiences? Living through exclusion for the better of the future, when others at Oxford have a much easier ride, is exhausting. I am tired of constantly campaigning my college and the University to make changes, only to be ignored by people who don’t understand and don’t try to understand the issues. I have now reached a point in my time here where I simply want to present people with my experience, not offers of solutions, and have them consider that alone. 

It feels that Oxford is a space which is not really ready for people like me yet. But it’s not me, or people like me, that need to change. It’s Oxford. These experiences shaped me and continue to drive me: I want to learn and succeed, because I want to be able to care for my mom, I want financial security for the future, and I want to make people at home proud. I live dual lives, but they are somewhat blurred.

I’m just currently occupying space that isn’t ready for me yet. 

A Language on the Tip of my Tongue

By Ming Zee Tee

After my grandmother’s funeral, we flood into the best restaurant within the vicinity of the crematorium – an old colonial building gutted out and refurbished, located in the historic Georgetown area of Penang. I sit next to Grand-auntie Foong, watching the Lazy Susan turn round with the peanuts and tea.

An chua bo tek pek eh ark?”[1] Auntie gesticulates to the waiting staff, slightly annoyed.

He shrugs. “Than kio eh si kanna chiak kahwin eh ark nia.”[2]

I look to Dad for a translation. But a born-and-bred Penang boy, who never let go of his Malaysian roots, he has lapsed back into his native Hokkien and speaks to them with ease. This world of plurilingualism makes sense to him, to everyone, but not to me.

This is because I grew up in Singapore. Singapore, where the official language remains British English, and where we read Shakespeare and Bronte at school. Singapore, where if you were ethnically Chinese, your mandatory second language was Mandarin, regardless of the dialect your parents actually spoke (in my case, Hokkien)[3]. Singapore, where talented students are offered the option of picking up a third language: either French, German, Spanish, or Japanese.

But let’s start from the beginning.

‘Laksa’ by Alisa Musatova

In Decolonising the Mind, Kenyan novelist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o writes how the colonial experience produces “a society of bodiless heads and headless bodies”: for the educated colonial subject, the rift between their language of conceptualisation, thinking, and formal education (the colonial language) and the language of daily interaction in the home and community (the native language) creates two unrelated linguistic spheres in her, much like separating the mind from the body. There was often not the slightest relationship between the child’s written world – the language of her schooling – and the world of her immediate familial environment. This disharmony between forms of communication dissociates the child from her natural and social environment. This is the phenomenon of “colonial alienation”: the subject articulates her self-conception in the colonial language, reads literature and consumes its culture, distancing herself from her community’s reality and towards the coloniser’s.

Colonial alienation was an instrument in the coloniser’s toolkit, designed to dominate the subject’s mental universe in addition to their physical realities. Mere military conquest and political dictatorship was insufficient. To effectuate total control, the coloniser needed to penetrate how the subject perceived themselves and their relationship to the world, and shape it towards the Eurocentric view of history, geography, philosophy, and art. This was achieved through a dual process: deliberately undervaluing or destroying the colonial subject’s culture; and then elevating the culture of the coloniser. Sengalese author Cheikh Hamidou Kane writes of the gentle psychological violence of the classroom:

“[the] real power resided not at all in the cannons of the first morning but what followed the cannons…the new school had the nature of both the cannon and the magnet. From the cannon it took the efficiency of a fighting weapon. But better than the cannon it made the conquest permanent. The cannon forces the body and the school fascinates the soul.”[4]

Language, as both a method of communication and a carrier of culture, was the ultimate vehicle for this.

In the 1960s, the world’s postcolonial countries, newly independent, were intent on shaking off the yoke of this cultural conditioning. They took down statues and put up new ones, changed educational syllabuses, renamed streets and reinstated national languages. Writers such as Thiong’o turned to work entirely in their native language; others used “new Englishes”, or local variants of the coloniser’s language that reflect distinct cultural outlooks and usages. India allowed its states – which had differing ethnic identities – to designate their own state languages, while retaining English as the official language of the government and legal system. Malaysia instituted Bahasa Melayu (Malay) as a new national language, while vernacular schools and local dialects flourished alongside. The story of Singapore is slightly different.

Upon independence from Britain in 1963, roughly three-quarters of Singapore’s population were ethnic Chinese, one-sixth Malay, and 8% Indian. Singaporeans spoke a cacophony of tongues, reflective of our diverse origins: for instance, the Chinese population had immigrated over the centuries from various southern Chinese provinces, and variously spoke Hokkien (originating from Fujian), Hakka, Cantonese and Teochew (tracing back to Guangdong). The nation’s linguistic profile included 33 mother tongue groups, 20 of which were spoken by more than a thousand people. These dialects, while united by the written system of Mandarin, sound as different as Europe’s Romance languages: “have you eaten?” translates to “sek bao mei?” in Cantonese, “jiak ba beh?” in Hokkien, and “chi bao ma? (吃饱没?)” in Mandarin.

Yet the Singapore government retained English as the official language of education, governance and business. In a nod to ethnic identity, a policy of mandatory bilingualism was instituted in the school system: if you were Malay, you studied Bahasa Melayu; if Indian, then Tamil; if Chinese, then Standard Mandarin. The choice of English was a ruthlessly instrumental one: the incumbent government wished to woo Western investment with a labour force fluent in English, and position Singapore as the country amiable to foreign capital amidst a sea of Southeast Asian nationalism. Similarly, Mandarin was a pragmatic choice, foreshadowing the rise of China as an economic and political behemoth.

The problem? Only 2% of Singaporean Chinese actually spoke Mandarin.[5]

Thus in 1979, the government launched a fierce program of linguistic engineering. With the slogan “多说华语,少说方言” (“Speak more Mandarin, speak less dialect”), the Speak Mandarin Campaign was designed to stamp out non-standard vernaculars and unite different Chinese groups under a common language. Students who spoke otherwise were fined and made to write out “I will not speak dialects” hundreds of times. Radio stations had – and still have – gag orders on broadcasting dialect talk shows and music. The TV Programme Code stipulates that “all Chinese programmes [. . .] must be in Mandarin”, and that “sub-standard Mandarin (characterised by poor syntax or use of vocabulary, poorly pronounced Mandarin or mixed with many dialect terms)” are prohibited. Public signs communicate in the four state-sanctioned languages only. In his 1981 public address, Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew was determined that “nobody should use dialects… wise parents will never let their children speak dialect at all”, and that “Chinese Singaporeans below the age of forty who speak dialect will be the last in queue [in receiving help from governmental departments]”.

By the 1970s, attendance in English-medium schools had leaped from 50% to 90%; numbers in vernacular institutions correspondingly plummeted. The forced merging of Nanyang University (Singapore’s only Chinese-language private university, founded by the chairman of the Singapore Hokkien Association) with the University of Singapore conclusively ended an era of vernacular education. Today, only 12% of Singaporeans speak a Chinese dialect at home, compared to 80% a generation ago.

What happens when linguistic alienation is enforced twofold on a population: first by the coloniser, and then by the newly independent government? In their colonial policies, the British had sought to monopolise public discourse in Singapore by making English the official language. This was aimed at countering the influence of the Chinese political and business community. In an uncanny parallel, the Singapore government reproduced these models of intellectual control by subordinating vernacular languages to Standard Mandarin and English. Although their goals were different – they were a government oriented towards national economic advancement, rather than resource plunder – their means of social hegemony were the same.

And so cultural knock-ons follow.

None of the languages I speak are my own.

On most days, this doesn’t faze me. What is ‘ownership’ of a language? How can I identify with what I never had? For those like me, two generations removed from the experience of colonial subjection, Thiong’o’s disharmony is less harsh: my friends and parents speak English, my diet of media is democratized, and the memories of a thing lost are not my own.

But as I sit at the dinner table of my grandmother’s wake, the gap looms large, and I wonder what was lost in the chasm between our languages. If I’d known Hokkien, what jokes could she have told? What stories would she have shared? Could it have smoothened the corners of our relationship?

I turn to Grand-auntie Foong, questions on the tip of my tongue. But I cannot speak, the food has arrived, and she is ladling out soup for everyone.

Jiak! Jiak! If not it’ll get cold.”

I nod; this at least I understand.

[1] “How come there’s no special duck dish?” in Hokkien

[2] “That dish is only for wedding dinners”, in Hokkien.

[3] A dialect is a spoken vernacular code without a standardized written system. A language is the standardized code used in spoken and written form.

[4] Cheikh Hamidou Kane, L’aventure Ambigue

[5] In fact, Mandarin was a dialect spoken by people from northern China, whereas most Singaporean Chinese were diaspora from southern China.

Plying the ‘Billingsgate Trade’

By Ushashi Dasgupta.

In Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit (1855-7), Amy Dorrit despairs for her brother, Tip. Tip is a gambler, perennially in debt and unable to settle to anything; he’s always drawn back to the Marshalsea Prison, where the Dorrits have lived with their father since early childhood. We’re told that Amy, the ‘brave little creature’ at the heart of the novel, ‘pinche[s] and scrape[s] enough together to ship him for Canada’. ‘Don’t be too proud to come and see us, when you have made your fortune’, she urges Tip, but he never makes it past Liverpool, returning to the Marshalsea before the month is up. It’s a fleeting reference to settler colonialism in a novel that explores the difficulties of traversing boundaries – especially once they’ve been constructed in our minds. It’s Amy’s last resort for Tip, who ‘tire[s] of everything’, from working in an auctioneer’s to a distillery; he goes ‘into a wool house, into dry goods house, into the Billingsgate trade, into the foreign fruit trade, and into the docks’ (Dickens: 1855-7).

This is an essay about the ‘Billingsgate trade’, or the sale of fish at London’s most celebrated market. Billingsgate thrives to this day. In Little Dorrit, the ‘Billingsgate trade’ is just one of many interchangeable examples of honest industry, but the market plays a greater role in the nineteenth-century imagination. Its history is also a history of constructing and questioning binaries: between the nation and the world, the human and the non-human, the haves and the have-nots, the city and the plantation, and, finally, between English and other languages. 

Graeme Milne’s work on the nineteenth-century ‘sailortown’ explores ‘entanglements’ and ‘encounters’ at waterfronts around the world: the liminal spaces separating city, river or sea (Milne: 2016). Billingsgate was a tiny sliver of land on the banks of the Thames, and its fish-market has moved several times over history. As the Victorian writer George Augustus Sala explains, ‘Billingsgate has been one of the watergates or ports of the city from time immemorial’ (Sala: 1859). Originally a gate to the ancient city, the Victorian market concentrates ideas about trade, globalisation, and the relationship between the province, the nation and the world. For Dickens and the urban journalists working around him, a visit to Billingsgate is an opportunity to witness Victorian progress, but it also forces them to confront some of modernity’s discontents. In 1850, Dickens co-wrote an article (‘A Popular Delusion’) about the market with his sub-editor, WH Wills, for his journal Household Words; Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (1851), includes an extended section on Billingsgate and its street-sellers; Sala’s Twice Round the Clock opens with a trip to bustling Billingsgate at the break of dawn. Mayhew, Sala, Dickens and Wills share a broad aim – to make London legible. They suggest Victorian London is an undiscovered land and act as guides for their readers. In doing so, they insist on the centrality of London, the capital of the world as much as the country, a place with the power to absorb all attention and capture the imagination. 

When these writers bring Billingsgate to life, replicating its sights and sounds, they’re reinforcing the argument that urban space is atomised, and not a coherent whole. A border subdivides space and forms territories. The borders between zones in a city may be artificial, stencilled in from above, or they might emerge unintentionally – a result of a decision made elsewhere, about something else. Alternatively, the process of creating a border can be organic, the line sketched after tacit and casual agreement. Borders might spring up overnight or ossify over time. At one level, the uniqueness of Billingsgate’s identity in Victorian journalism simply emphasises that any city is a patchwork of local neighbourhoods stitched together, where some seams show more clearly than others. But because Billingsgate is both a market and a port, it also invites a host of different questions about the way space is circumscribed. Dickens, Wills and Mayhew describe the ability of technology to collapse boundaries. At Billingsgate, Londoners are compelled to recalibrate their definitions of distance and proximity, which creates a more pronounced conception of a unified nation-state. Stocks of fish hurtle into the metropolis on trains and steamboats, from Devon and Cornwall, Ireland, Scotland, and Norway; as they are bought and sold, they disperse again, turning this neighbourhood into a crossroads. Dickens and Wills reconstruct the final movements of a single turbot, captured twenty miles off the coast of Dover. ‘He is no sooner taken on board’, they write, ‘than he is trans-shipped immediately with thousands of his flat companions in a row-boat into a clipper’; from the clipper he is transferred to a tug steamer, deposited alive in Billingsgate, and ‘finds his way to table in the neighbourhood of the Mansion House or Belgrave Square some four-and-twenty hours after he has been sporting in the sea, no less than a hundred and fifty miles off’ (Dickens and Wills: 1850). Perhaps unexpectedly, the turbot’s streamlined journey to the dinner-plate becomes an anchor for philosophical and political thinking: at what point does ‘there’ become ‘here’, or ‘far’ become ‘near’? As space begins to contract, the Victorians have to reorient themselves – and fast. 

The turbot is almost – if not quite – a character in this essay, and his efficient transportation from Dover to London raises ethical questions about the consumption of animals as food. There’s something slightly creepy about the way his story is told. The more recently a fish has been alive – the closer our proximity to the living thing, the narrower the line between life and death – the higher the fish is valued. While Dickens and Wills seem to allow the possibility that an animal is a self rather than an object (the turbot ‘sport[s] in the sea’, is him rather than it), Mayhew is more interested in Billingsgate’s role as a temple to commodity culture. For Mayhew, the piles of fish have a strange kind of splendour, all colour and gleam and iridescence. Most striking are the ‘transparent smelts on the marble-slabs, and the bright herrings, with the lump of transparent ice magnifying their eyes like a lens’: the ‘transparent’ smelts hover somewhere between the substantial and insubstantial, and the herrings’ massive, dead eyes stare back at the purchaser. Elsewhere in London Labour, Mayhew talks about the way the quality of the light at sunrise stains cauliflowers red on a market-stall, and he’s doing something similar in his descriptions of Billingsgate, employing a novelist’s eye for detail to suggest that commerce is beautiful (Mayhew: 1851). He’s excited by the entrepreneurial spirit, the circulation of things, and the everyday manifestations of economic change and growth – what the nation’s slow, messy transition toward capitalism might look like from the street. The history of Billingsgate captures this turn in miniature. Sales in Billingsgate were regulated in its earliest years, but it became a free market in 1699. By the time the nineteenth century comes around, the neighbourhood is at the centre of a vast enterprise: Mayhew calculates that £1,460,850 is spent on fish on the streets. 

Eel-boats, or schuyts, are sites of exchange between the British and the Dutch. They offer an interesting example of the kinds of, casual, regular interactions that are possible among the citizens of different nations. Mayhew describes the negotiations taking place; ‘men in tall fur caps with high cheek bones, and rings in their ears, walk the decks’.  As customers are brought up to the eel-boats by skiff, ‘the master Dutchman takes his hands from his pockets, lays down his pipe, and seizing a sort of long-handled landing-net scoops from the tank a lot of eels’. These encounters are theatrical and comic, at once casual and slightly ritualistic, especially as the haggling begins. It’s an example of disparate people coming together at Billingsgate. Dickens and Wills describe the diners at Simpson’s Tavern, who have arrived, ‘like the fish, from various distances’. There are visitors from the Eastern Counties and Doncaster, an ‘undertaker from Whitechapel’, and a ‘respectable Jew provision-merchant from Hamburg’. They’re joined by a man from York, ‘with sunken jaws that were always in motion, like a gutta percha mouth that was being continually squeezed’, and, finally, ‘a wooden leg that had brought the person it belonged to, all the way from Canada’; as John Carey has pointed out, Dickens frequently troubles the boundary between person and thing, the animate and inanimate (Carey: 1973). While these descriptions are uncanny, Dickens and Wills end the segment with a tiny gesture that points to shared humanity: the meal is so satisfying that a ‘very large smooth-faced old gentleman’ from Devonshire must push back his chair when he is finished ‘to give his satin waistcoat play’. Of course, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the space is utopian, or meaningfully cosmopolitan, just because it’s convivial: there’s no deeper point made in this essay about sympathy, understanding, or mutual positive change. It’s too much to ask of one fish-market. Nevertheless, the schuyts and tavern demonstrate how national and regional boundaries can be crossed in informal ways. 

As these examples suggest, the literature of London is something of an ethnographic exercise; on certain occasions, it seems more interested in perpetuating negative stereotypes and fitting people into boxes than allowing for the fluid, multiple, even contradictory identities contained within a single urban subject, which can make it jarring to the modern reader. Though London Labour does appear obsessed by categories, especially with relation to London’s ‘poor’, it also offers surprising and subtle insights into class stratification. Mayhew explains that the market is busiest at the end of the week when households are running low on money, and fish is cheap; Fridays, too, are fast days for impoverished Irish Catholic migrants into the city, and a day when fish is consumed. He interviews the people he finds at the market, listening to their stories.

While Dickens and Wills recommend serving Billingsgate fish to the inmates of workhouses and prisons, using the market to try to tackle a perceived social problem, George Augustus Sala is interested in the way physical neighbourhoods become synonymous with revolutionary politics in the cultural imagination. Billingsgate is Sala’s first stop in Twice Round The Clock – a journey through London’s neighbourhoods, over the course of a single day. As the chapter draws to a close – at five o’clock in the morning – he is tempted to go home to bed, where he will have ‘fantastic dreams’ of Ned Ward and ‘the market-scene in “Masaniello”’, and ‘hum a dream-reminiscence of “Behold, how brightly beams the morning!” [‘Amis la matinée est belle’]’.  These are references to Ned Ward’s The London Spy (1703) and Daniel François Esprit Auber’s grand opera La Muette de Portici (1828), first performed in translation in London in 1829. Both Ward and Auber tell stories of working-class subversion in the fish-markets of Europe. La Muette is an embroidered account of the Neapolitan rebellion against the Spanish Habsburg empire, led by the fisherman Masaniello in 1647; not only is the opera’s history intertwined with that of revolutionary France, it’s also credited with starting the Belgian Revolution against the Netherlands in the early 1830s (Hibberd: 2003). Ned Ward, meanwhile, is talking about his misadventures in Billingsgate and his uncomfortable encounters with local fishwives. Paula McDowell discusses Ward and explores the trope of the working-class, grandiloquent, sexualised and rude fishwives of Billingsgate in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, who overpower educated gentlemen; McDowell also explains that the humble fishwife becomes central in conversations about the French Revolution (McDowell: 2017). In these traditions, fish-markets are public and democratic spaces that encourage defiance against a range of oppressors. Sala, it would seem, has internalised Ward and Auber’s transgressive texts so completely that he expects to dream about them. 

But how does this story shift when we consider new research by Cassandra Pybus and Kit Candlin, who have discovered that Sala spent much of his life struggling with his own, personal connection to global histories of oppression? In their micro-histories of women in the ‘revolutionary Atlantic’, Pybus and Candlin draw attention to Dorothy Thomas: a freed woman of colour in Demerara who gained great wealth, owned and hired out slaves, and counted Sala as one of her great-grandchildren. For Pybus and Candlin, Sala’s shame about his links to Thomas, whom he met in childhood during one of her visits to Europe, explains the overt racism in his fiction and journalism (Pybus: 2011, Pybus and Candlin: 2015). Pybus and Candlin’s research also encourages a reconsideration of Sala’s project as an urban observer and journalist. His most off-the-cuff references to the rest of the world become charged. Twice Round the Clock is a celebration of flânerie, the act of walking the city at leisure and often with joy, taking in the life of the street without having to participate; it is predicated on ease, freedom of movement, and freedom of access. Sala’s London exists in a diptych with the spaces of slavery – the land seized by imperialists, the ship, and the sugar plantation. What is the relationship between the flaneur, in his mobility, and the countless constricted lives in the Caribbean and South America?  It’s clear that these spaces and bodies are linked in ways that aren’t apparent at first glance.

Peter Blake charts Sala’s travels to Russia, the US, and Australia as a foreign correspondent (Blake: 2015). In the opening pages of Twice Round The Clock, Sala suggests that being worldly isn’t simply to do with where one goes – the influence of other nations is inscribed in his literary style. ‘I cannot write otherwise than I do write,’ he says. ‘Born in England, I am neither by parentage nor education an Englishman; in my childhood I browsed on a salad of languages, which I would willingly exchange now for a plain English lettuce or potato. Better to feed on hips and haws’ – the fruit of the native rose – ‘than on gangrened green-gages and mouldy pine-apples’ – both imported from overseas, and, in Sala’s image, the worse-for-wear for travelling. It’s a strange moment, tinged with ambivalence about linguistic hybridity. Sala is reflexive about the nature and power of language, and nowhere is this more apparent than at Billingsgate. When he says that the ‘flowers of Billingsgate eloquence are evergreens’, and makes a note to himself, ‘Mem.’, ‘to write a philosophical dissertation on the connection between markets and voluble vituperation which has existed in all countries and in all ages’, he’s alluding to the neighbourhood’s centuries’-old reputation: Billingsgate fishwives are renowned through the Early Modern city for their unique and sweary cant (Spain-Savage: 2016, McDowell: 2017). McDowell argues that their raucous street-cries compel writers to weigh up competing definitions of articulacy, and speak to the triumph of oral culture over rhetorical training, book-learning, and print. Dickens and Wills take pains to show that Victorian Billingsgate is no longer the ‘headquarters of verbal vulgarity’. Its legacy, however, remains: in English idiom, ‘Billingsgate’ has become a synonym for ‘abusive language’, and to ‘speak Billingsgate’ simply means to swear. A mode of expression defined by its relationship to a precise location has broken free of its original context, and travels across temporal and geographical boundaries. 

Who, then, imports this word, or has language pressed upon them? I’m going to end in the Bengal Presidency, and with the following pair of sentences: ‘It is unnecessary to try the patience of my readers by reproducing all of his Billingsgate. The patient woman bore it silently’ (Chattopadhyay: 1864). This appears in Rajmohan’s Wife – the first Indian novel written in English, serialised in the Indian Field in 1864. Rajmohan’s Wife comes to an abrupt end, and had a limited audience. The author, Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay, never published an English novel again. Instead, Bankim decided to direct his creative energies to composing fiction in Bangla, and became one of the most important novelists of the age: his books include Durgeshnandini (1865) and the explicitly anti-colonial Anandamath (1882). There are wide-ranging discussions of Rajmohan’s Wife by Meenakshi Mukherjee (2000), Priya Joshi (2002), and Supriya Chaudhuri (2015), but I want to linger on this single moment, and on Rajmohan’s Billingsgate. Rajmohan is intimidating his wife, Matangini – the novel’s courageous protagonist, long used to domestic abuse. They live in an East Bengali village, and she’s punished for going down to the Madhumati River to fetch water with a friend. Rajmohan ‘pour[s] out all the water on the dust-heap’, ‘[flings] away the empty pitcher’, and grabs her wrist, threatening to hit her. Bankim uses the expression as a euphemism, in order to avoid printing Rajmohan’s language; if, in eighteenth-century London, Billingsgate was used by fishwives to chastise hapless men, gender roles are switched here, and the scene is much more serious. What do we do with this undeniably odd reference to Billingsgate in Rajmohan’s Wife? How much weight can one word bear? It functions as an imaginative bridge from tiny Radhaganj to monstrous London, the Madhumati to the Thames. It’s a time portal to the eighteenth century. It also sticks out of the text; you feel like you’ve crashed into it as you’re reading, and it becomes a hook on which to hang questions. How are the histories of imperialism and the English language intertwined? How porous are the lines between literary cultures and reading publics? What happens when the British oral tradition meets Indian print culture, or when an expression with a comic history is used in a melodramatic context, or when the language of the fish-market is brought into the home – all because a woman has ventured out to the water’s edge?

I come from three busy port cities – Hong Kong, Kolkata, and Los Angeles – and, after many years, am still getting used to living in a town with a moseying river. Thinking about Billingsgate in landlocked Oxford, though, has encouraged me to hold up the light the divisions between literary periods. Somewhat hesitantly, I have stepped over the lines separating other disciplines from my own: geography, history, economics, politics and music. It’s yet another unexpected consequence of the ‘Billingsgate trade’.

Ushashi is a lecturer in English Literature at Pembroke College, Oxford.

Artwork by Charlotte Bunney.

Bibliography

Peter Blake, George Augustus Sala and the Nineteenth-Century Periodical Press: The Personal Style of a Public Writer (Farnham: Ashgate, 2015).

John Carey, The Violent Effigy: A Study of Dickens’ Imagination (London: Faber and Faber, 1973).

Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay, Rajmohan’s Wife, ed. Meenakshi Mukherjee (New Delhi: Penguin, 2009).

Supriya Chaudhuri, ‘Beginnings: Rajmohan’s Wife and the Novel in India’, in A History of the Indian Novel in English, ed. Ulka Anjaria (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), pp.31-44.

Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit (London: Bradbury & Evans, 1855-7).

——– [and WH Wills], ‘A Popular Delusion’, Household Words, 1 June 1850.

Sarah Hibbert, ‘La Muette and Her Context’, in The Cambridge Companion to Grand Opera, ed. David Charlton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp.149-167.

Priya Joshi, In Another Country: Colonialism, Culture, and the English Novel in India (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).

Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor (London: Griffin & Bohn, 1851).

Paula McDowell, The Invention of the Oral: Print Commerce and Fugitive Voices in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017).

Graeme Milne, People, Place and Power on the Nineteenth-Century Waterfront: Sailortown (Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).

Meenakshi Mukherjee, The Perishable Empire: Essays on Indian Writing in English (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000).

Cassandra Pybus, ‘Tense and Tender Ties: Reflections on Lives Recovered from the Intimate Frontier of Empire and Slavery’, Life Writing, 8 (2011), 5-17.

——– and Kit Candlin, Enterprising Women: Gender, Race, and Power in the Revolutionary Atlantic (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2015).

George Augustus Sala, Twice Round the Clock (London: Houlston & Wright, 1859).

Christi Spain-Savage, ‘The Gendered Place Narratives of Billingsgate Fishwives’, SEL, 56 (2016), 417-434.

This Organism We Call Hɪst(ə)ri

By Sophia Staffiero.

this organism we call hɪst(ə)ri
is lived on people’s skins
is the burden that forced the spine to curl inwards
taught the face to masquerade
the ears to burn quietly
polluted eyes to sting discreetly
it is the stories locked in the folds of my ancestors’ backs
the dull ache of a slipped disk
is the musty odour of flesh filtered through our deep inhales
the gritty layer of tar smeared at the bottom of our lungs
it is the muscular memory that clings to our bones
begging not to be forgotten
decaying in the commemoration of unlearnt lessons
and the spiral of repetition
it is our pulsating biological memory
the counterflow of personal and collective
the projection of names and dates
of distant women scribbled in books
the version recorded by other less distant women
it is the jutting shards of victory
the false promises of rectification
the barren landscapes, the absent narrative
the nullification that numbifies us with the same rhetoric
gushing from the singular fount of
perpetrators
and
victims
and at the same time
it is the mesh of people’s skin
the grey tincture, drained eyes, swollen ears
liquid limbs, bitten tongues and the tongues choking for air
for life
it is the indigestion of fragmentary realities
competing for space in the arena of our minds. 

I smooth the thick oily product through your locks,
my fingertips gliding over the rippled strands
and as my hand gently recedes from the labyrinth of coils and spirals,
each one defiantly springs back as if to say 

I am here 

despite 400yrs without a comb,
despite travelling across oceans
to lands where we are categorised as ‘bad’
for no other reason than that we refuse to be stretched into submission 

I’ve survived 

the hot combs and chemicals
I’ve declined their invitation
to tune down my ‘unprofessional’
Now watch my unapologetic curves boast, 

We are here to stay 

Precious Girl, Fierce Woman
do not spurn your majestic feathers and wish them to be anything other than
they are
our intimacy is not found in the glimmers of silk-pressed ebony,
nor in the whiteness of peroxide blonde
it’s tucked away in the crevices of barber shops,
between the clasp of two knees,
in the bond of a lock or a braid
it’s found in each and every one of our unruly coils
that declare in the only way they know how
in their refusal to lay down, to surrender 

despite 400yrs without a comb,
despite too many lost years away from home
We’ve survived,
We are here, We will stay

With thanks to the artist.

Feminism Today: How Neoliberalism Is Failing Us

By Lola Dickinson.

Feminism in 2019 can at once seem both real and tangible while also remaining elusive, and hard to define.  We have seen the recent successes of the International Women’s Strike and the admirable triumphs of the unionisation of strippers in London. Yet, alongside this, we are increasingly surrounded by the mainstreaming of feminism into popular culture: from the outpouring of ‘GIRL POWER’ merchandise and deals on International Women’s Day to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, run largely on her assertion that ‘women’s rights are human rights’. Feminism has become cool. At times, it is hard to know what all these ‘feminisms’ have in common aside from their shared use of the word.

One of the most prominent and dangerous forms of these strands includes ‘neoliberal feminism’, recognisable under labels such as ‘marketplace feminism’, ‘corporate feminism’, or ‘lean-in feminism’. We live in a neoliberal economic system where free markets are prioritised at the expense of social welfare provision, and responsibility is centred on the individual, not the collective. Indeed, David Harvey defines neoliberalism as “a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets and free trade” (Harvey, 2005). Within such a framework, neoliberalism has actively appropriated feminism, using it as a means to adopt ‘social liberal’ politics, whilst simultaneously maintaining a political and economic system that operates in the interests of elites (Eisenstein, 2010). The adoption of mainstream feminism has been an active project to maintain neoliberal capitalism, albeit with a more human face. Further, in a manner often unnoticed, this process caught feminism in its snares and made it palatable and watered-down – now it is something that can be adopted by people of all political leanings.

Neoliberalism has left feminism with almost no political agenda at all. It has become something that props up hegemonic narratives and fails to support the most marginalised – we need a feminism that will offer emancipation and solidarity for those who are most marginalised. Theresa May, who as Home Secretary led many migrant women to detention centres such as Yarl’s Wood, and as Prime Minister has consistently advocated austerity measures shown to disproportionately affect women, repeatedly affirms her identity as a feminist; its current form reinforces the marginalisation of certain groups, while upholding the power of the elite. Furthermore, we now see a growing branch of self-labelled ‘radical’ feminists who attempt to establish a firm boundary around womanhood, usually excluding trans-women and sex workers from this definition. 

The word ‘feminism’ has been adopted within many different modern-day contexts. It has become so diluted that it now holds little weight and we are losing our ability to mobilise into a cohesive movement. We need a comprehensive feminism, now more than ever, which is centred on defending trans rights, supporting sex workers, pushing to abolish detention centres, and fighting for an anti-racist, internationalist, socialist future in which the rights of all individuals are guaranteed and protected. 

Since the 1990s, the rise of neoliberal feminism has drastically changed and modified the anti-capitalist feminist movement seen in previous decades. The most visible, and prominent version of such feminism typically centres rich, usually white women, such as Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. It advocates that women can make their own path, simply by having confidence and making more ambitious choices in their careers. At its most extreme, we saw the recent appropriation of International Women’s Day by BAE Systems, one of the world’s largest arms companies. As one of the leading suppliers of weaponry to Saudi Arabia, BAE Systems fuels the war in Yemen – exposing the drastic effects on women in the Global South of corporate feminism. In other contexts, companies span the intersection of liberation movements- Barclays is one of the biggest sponsors of London’s Pride Parade and has been involved in several IWD campaigns, yet also invests in arms companies that sell to Saudi Arabia where queer people are often killed for existing. 

Fundamentally, neoliberal feminism assumes that all women have the same, or at least a similar, amount of agency. It places the source of oppression on the individual: if only you try harder and be more confident, you will reach new heights. It detaches feminism from a common social movement, turning it into something that is individual, a competition with other women. Feminism becomes centred on personal advancement, a crucial component to neoliberal philosophy.

Neoliberal feminism shows little consideration for an experience that is outside that of a rich, cis white woman. It suggests that society will change through the individual action of women, not that society needs to be uprooted in order for women’s experiences to change. Neoliberal feminism ignores the barriers which capitalism poses on women, thus concealing the effect of socio-economic standing on the decisions and experiences of individuals. As Sarah Wright asserts, people’s decisions are largely limited by their class, rendering “individual empowerment…immaterial” (Wright, 2017). She highlights that all political stances of feminists are influenced by their relative class position. When looking at access to abortion in Britain, whilst it is formally a right accessible to all individuals the choice to exercise this right is often determined by socio-economic background and future prospects. This is not to say that such rights shouldn’t be fought for, indeed, the recent ‘Repeal the 8th’ movement in Ireland saw passionate and cohesive campaigning efforts which made historic and important change. We must, however, further consider the various factors that create the illusion of choice, such as class, race, religion or disability. At its best, neoliberal feminism will acknowledge such intersectionalities on a surface level, but it fundamentally fails to acknowledge the extent to which these can change and limit the experiences and perspectives of individuals. 

Directly, we can see the materialisation of neoliberal feminism in the rising trend of ‘feminist fashion’ within the fast fashion industry. ‘Feminism’ can now mean buying a t-shirt, wearing it, and identifying with the label on a personal basis, without substantive commitment to the movement as a whole. Almost every label, from Christian Dior to Topshop, has recently taken to designing clothes, bags, notebooks – anything they can sell – emblazoned with ‘feminist’ slogans. Transnational corporations have co-opted feminism, turning it into something which can be commercialised and sold. This form of brand activism works to increase sales by seemingly aligning companies with popular social values. These companies offer a public face that appears supportive of LGBTQIA+, body positivity, disability rights, and racial and religious equality movements while doing nothing practical to ensure that the rights of such marginalised identities are protected. Indeed, by capitalising from political movements, they succeed not only in making profit but also in weakening the potential of such movements to make impactful change.

Representation is important, especially in areas in which thin cis white women have often dominated. But it is also a basic requirement that should be met – not one that necessarily deserves congratulations. Further, while such representation appears to have social justice as its agenda, it must also be recognised that this also works to increase their consumer base to groups that have only recently grown in economic power after having gained bourgeois rights and prominence in the workplace. We must be cautious and aware of brands working to improve their reputation in the eyes of the consumer while profiting from social justice movements in ways that ultimately work against the movements themselves, by, for example, increasing the huge income of the global 1% and exploiting women in the countries where their products are manufactured. Whilst these companies profit, for those purchasing these products neoliberal feminism has meant that buying a t-shirt is seen as a form of activism, detracting from any actual grassroots work being carried out and diffusing the political potential of feminism as a movement. Feminism in this form is manageable and palatable; it is something that poses very little threat to the political and economic underpinnings of the hegemony of the Global North. Feminism in this form has no power.

Neo-colonialism, the control of the Global South by the Global North through indirect means that reinforces a strict hierarchy, has taken many subtle forms in contemporary society, notably within our ever-expanding fast fashion industry. The exploitation of labour, usually in South-East Asia, embodies how our capitalist and consumer-driven culture privileges the rights of Western Europeans and North Americans at the expense of those in the Global South. Within the fast fashion industry, factory workers are overwhelmingly women, with an estimated 80% of the world’s garment workers being female. This figure is as high as 70% in China, 85% in Bangladesh, and 90% in Cambodia. The horrific working conditions at factories employed by high street labels is a fact widely known though rarely reflected upon. The most extreme example of this is the 2013 collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, which resulted in 1,134 deaths. Rana Plaza workers provided clothes for brands such as Primark and Matalan in the US and the UK. The conditions and pay that workers are subject to would never be accepted in western countries. This can be seen as part of a continuing imperial legacy in which women continue to fare the worst. 

White neoliberal feminism shows little care or consideration for the conditions of non-white workers outside of Europe and Northern America. This can be seen on two planes: companies that brazenly adopt the word ‘feminism’ predominantly for profit, and the buyer either champions such adoption or (at best) fails to critically examine such a product in context. For example, The Fawcett Society, a charity in the UK that campaigns for gender equality, produced a t-shirt with the slogan ‘This Is What A Feminist Looks Like’. However, these were exposed to be made in a Mauritian sweatshop by women earning an estimated 62p per hour. 

More recently, a Guardian investigation found that t-shirts sold by the Spice Girls to raise money for Comic Relief’s “gender justice” campaign were made in Bangladeshi factories where women earn the equivalent of 35p per hour during shifts in which they claim to be verbally abused and harassed. These women were expected to work up to 16 hours a day to hit targets. One machinist told the Guardian: “The wages we get are very minimum. It’s barely enough to survive.” (Murphy, A2019)The t-shirts they made were sold for £19.40, with £11.60 going to Comic Relief’s fund to “champion equality for women”.(Murphy, B2019) 

It is often the same large corporations, NGOs, and companies that continue cycles of oppression while claiming to be working towards its elimination. They co-opt the word ‘feminism’ in an attempt to increase sales and improve their social standing, but their practice is far from feminist. If such working conditions were exposed in factories in London, the same people who buy and wear the self-proclaiming ‘feminist’ t-shirts would be leading marches in protest. We must be aware that Britain’s imperialist legacies often mean that critical reflection on the conditions of workers producing imported goods is not engaged with, privileging the narrative of neoliberal Western feminism. Equally important, however, it must be acknowledged that while the consumers might unconsciously afford different reactions to working conditions in the Global North as abroad, neoliberal feminists, to some extent, show minimum level care about labour rights unilaterally. While we do not have comparable working conditions, neoliberal feminists side line the rights of sex workers, those struggling on zero hour contracts, or those in low-paid full-time jobs having to increasingly rely on food banks. The levels of poverty are strikingly different, but on an ideological level, the same lack of concern for labour rights or poverty is the same at a local or global level. 

The fast fashion industry shows no care for the conditions and experiences of its workers, the desire for profit is their principle incentive. Labour outsourcing has enabled UK companies to exploit workers under far worse conditions than if they looked for labour within the EU and has simultaneously made factory workers in South-East Asia reliant on the West for labour. Such economic arrangements have cemented the imperial power dynamics instated over the last several centuries. This form of imperialism is additionally gendered, female factory employees are often subject to lower pay rates and higher rates of abuse than their male co-workers. 

In this way, neoliberal feminism thrives and profits off the backs of non-white women’s hard work and labour. The capitalist drive from huge transnational corporations is steadily working to completely divorce the word ‘feminism’ from any tangible political struggle. If we want to identify as feminists we need to do better. We need to critique the capitalist drive which sees the exploitation of workers under intolerable conditions, reject the neoliberal narrative that it should be on individual drive and determination to better one’s personal position, and support grassroots movements which are working to support and change working conditions for individuals around the world.

The need to be anti-capitalist and transnational is apparent if feminism is going to be a movement that supports and provides for all genders in all contexts. Rachel Cargle’s assertion that without intersectionality, feminism becomes a new form of white supremacy can be seen as a continuation of this theme. Indeed, “if there is not the intentional and action-based inclusion of women of colour, then feminism is simply white supremacy in heels.” (Cargle, 2018) Neoliberal feminism incurs the privileging of a single narrative that excludes the voices and experiences of those who are not rich, white, straight cis women. The silencing of such voices is seen within ‘feminist’ movements today: both the neoliberal form and the so-called radical form have seen the identification of TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) and SWERFs (sex-worker-exclusionary radical feminists). This ‘radical’ form of feminism is proud in its firm conceptions of womanhood rooted in certain limited conceptions of biology and the body, they affirm that this is what defines and oppresses women. As such, it comprehensively works to silence and further marginalise any voices that don’t fit within these rigid boundaries. Though to very different ends, it is similar to neoliberal feminism in privileging a certain narrative of womanhood. 

The splintering of feminism has been accompanied by the blurring boundaries of what counts as feminism in the twenty-first century. We need to find a way to define it and to ensure that it protects marginalised identities and secures women’s rights all over the world. There are strands of feminism, such as neoliberal feminism, which we need to be equipped to identify and reject in order to pave the way for a feminism which is rooted in inclusivity and capable of causing real change. The need for an inclusive, international movement is ever increasing as the global far right continues to grow in size and influence. This has brought with it a surge in the prevalence of racist and islamophobic attacks, often taking the distinct form of misogynoir when committed against women, the recent attacks and death threats on US Representative Ilhan Omar a poignant example. Further, as the on-going climate crisis takes an even greater hold, disproportionately affecting women in the Global South and working class women in the North, we must be supporting a feminism that has the capacity to support and protect rights of all genders, classes, sexualities, and races. 

For International Women’s Day 2019, we saw an international strike with over 6,000 women, with sex workers at the forefront, demanding an anti-capitalist future that fights to protect the rights of workers globally. We should be supporting, encouraging, and learning from such movements at all costs. These are the moments in history and voices that we need to evaluate, in order to ensure feminism remains a revolutionary force with genuine political underpinnings. Feminism must be an intersectional, international, socialist, and ultimately coherent movement that fights for the rights of all if it is to have a genuine and important impact. The space is here for such a movement, and the time is now.

Artwork by Beth Simcock.

Shifting Focus to the Future: The Afrofuturist Shapeshifter as (Unmenacing) Radical

By Khadeeja Khalid.

The genre of speculative fiction has always been fertile ground for evaluating and deconstructing boundaries of gender, race, sexuality, capitalism and systematic forms of oppression. Having only been legitimised in recent years as having the potential for academic relevance, many sub-genres of fantasy and science fiction have flourished. The figure of the metamorph or shapeshifter has always been met with revulsion and distrust, reaching as far back as Ovid’s Metamorphoses, to as recently and culturally embedded as X-Men’s Mystique, and the alien race of Skrulls in Captain Marvel. These depictions of the shapeshifter offer a more sensationalist approach in popular culture through their constant positioning as antagonist. I would argue that focusing on other examples of the shapeshifter might yield more interesting narratives, thus producing a means for tackling material issues affecting the world today. Although there are many great examples of how this might be achieved, this article will focus on shapeshifters in Octavia E. Butler’s Wild Seed (1980), and Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon (2014). Both novels are from the Afrofuturist sub-genre of science fiction, which is characterised by its confrontation of past and present instances of the oppression of black people, in order to chart a productive future beyond these systems of oppression. Both Butler and Okorafor present alternative modes of existence for historically oppressed peoples who continue to tackle sentiments of Afro-pessimism worldwide, in turn subverting stereotypes of the menacing shapeshifter and downtrodden black communities.

Much in the same way that Chicana theorist Gloria Anzaldúa’s figure of the nagual (the Náhuatl word for shapeshifter), and Donna Haraway’s cyborg (A Cyborg Manifesto (1985)) embody alternative modes of existence free of rigid human boundaries, the shapeshifter in literature and other media can be used to explore means of resisting oppressive power structures. Oftentimes oppression seems so pervasive that any resistance short of completely toppling oppressive systems seem insignificant. Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon takes place in modern-day Nigeria, and unflinchingly addresses many of the issues plaguing the country, from its corrupt government to its unsafe roads, which contribute to thousands of deaths every year. Although much of postcolonial discourse continues to discuss how nations might recover from their former colonisation, and whether this is even possible, Okorafor’s vision of a recovering Nigeria necessitates an alien invasion – chaos ensues. Okorafor’s scathing political critique throughout Lagoon cuts deeper than the unfolding chaos detailed within the novel itself, but identifies the root of these problems – a failure to realise a self-determined Nigeria independent of its colonial history. Her satirical narrative plays on familiar situations to highlight humans’ dislocation from their environment, making it not difficult to believe that preoccupied with dismembering a beached whale, a crowd of Lagosians ‘never looked twice at the space people walking out of the sea’ (p.116). Despite this, the novel never collapses into a tiring polemical work, as Okorafor deftly moves between narrative perspectives from different levels of the social strata, moving between the browbeaten Prime Minister of Nigeria in one chapter, to a mute, nameless and homeless orphan in another. Okorafor also challenges the privileging of anthropocentric perspectives, the mesmerising prologue from the perspective of a swordfish being a perfect example of this. The reader is drawn in as a witness – willingly or not – much in the same way that Okorafor’s characters must face the alien invasion of Lagos. 

The invasion is spearheaded by a shapeshifting alien ambassador named Ayodele, who embodies both future change as well as a return to the past. Military and religious fanatics immediately deem her presence menacing, yet it is this disruptive quality that attracts a disenfranchised underground LGBTQ+ group to seek her out as their spokesperson and protector, and also establishes her as a coveted figure for monetary gain. All of these conflicting groups see Ayodele as a means of destabilising the system, and are either vehemently repulsed or inextricably attracted to her. Adaora, a marine biologist and one of the first to encounter Ayodele, is convinced of the shapeshifting aliens’ benevolent purpose, which is augmented by the fact that she takes the form of Adaora’s favourite cousin. However, she finds herself unnerved by Ayodele: ‘If there was any strong hint of the alien in Ayodele’s appearance, it was in her eyes. When Adaora looked, she felt unsure… of everything. A college friend of hers used to say that everything human beings perceived as real was only a matter of the information their bodies recorded’ (p.37). Looking and seeing are prominent motifs in the novel; a mute orphan sees Ayodele’s first appearance as the auspicious incarnation of Mami Wata, whereas a prostitute sees her as ‘the devil’ heralding the end of days, which causes her to lead a crusade against those she arbitrarily identifies as aliens (p.13-4). It is arguably the orphan that has a keener insight, however lacks the social standing as well as a literal voice with which to share his perceptions. Besides exploring the menace of not being able to identify the shapeshifter based on looks alone, Okorafor’s aliens possess the ability to see in to minds of humans. This ability allows them project humans’ comforts and insecurities through assuming the shape of people in their lives, and although it is never used malevolently, this ability is deemed menacing as the aliens possess power in being able to see that which humans cannot.   

Amidst rioting and military violence against civilians, Okorafor’s polyvalent narrative brings together Lagosians, animals, aliens, and African deities, embodying what Anzaldúa sees as the spiritual purpose of the nagual – to act on behalf of a community to fight their ‘collective shadows’ (‘Speaking Across the Divide’). In the context of Lagoon, Ayodele as nagual/shapeshifter thus becomes a neplantera (Anzaldúa’s figure of a border-crosser between different worlds), an ‘agent of awakening’ that appears at points of crisis to ‘see through our cultural conditioning and through our respective cultures’ toxic ways of life’ (‘Speaking Across the Divide’). When questioned about her purpose, she simply remarks, ‘We are change’, however states that the alien invasion is simply the catalyst to amplify ‘the sentiments were already there’ and ‘impulses already present in [human] minds’ (p.39). The Lagosians can no longer turn a blind eye to those elements of life that they have been neglecting, as roads become anthropomorphised and insatiable in their hunger for human life, looters party with African deities in the streets, and sea creatures rise up to avenge their polluted waters. This augmentation of chaos, although at first met with distrust, is understood to be necessary, as a Lagosian civilian regards an alien in awe: ‘she was not human. She was not earthly. She was something completely other. But she was not evil either’ (p.206). The shapeshifting aliens supplant corrupt leaders and allow the Lagosians to build their communities from the ground up – a luxury that was not afforded them and other colonies in establishing nations in a post-colonial era. They are able to reconnect with that which they have neglected on a personal and national level, although the close of the novel sees this as the first step in the decolonising process. This might be read as analogous to movements such as Black Lives Matter, which campaigns for social change not just with regards to police violence towards African-Americans, but their socio-political status which remains part of America’s slaveholding history. Although BLM protests are vilified in the media, and its supporters understand that there is still much to be done to attain racial equality, it is undeniably a productive way of using the past and present to project a brighter future for the disenfranchised.   

Deemed the mother of Afrofuturism, Octavia Butler has been praised for her ability to challenge restrictions of genre, as she seamlessly merges the slave narrative with science fiction elements in her popular novel Kindred (1979), as well as within her Patternist series (1977-84). The first book of the series (chronologically), Wild Seed (1980), follows the immortal shapeshifter Ayunwu and her fraught relationship with Doro, the only other immortal in existence. Having lived for millennia, Doro has established a number of settlements across the globe during the peak of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and traverses continents in search of other supra-humans to populate these settlements. Ayunwu is taken to Wheatley, a settlement in 1690s colonial America, which is protected from the country’s formative years characterised by land-grabbing and its growing slave economy. The inhabitants of Wheatley are spared from social death – the condition of slaves, landless Native Americans, and those deemed mentally disturbed (in this case due to their psychic powers), which establishes them as sub-human. This idea of social death is still prevalent within the contemporary world, in America alone evidenced by the BLM movement, appalling conditions in detention centres on the US-Mexican border, and the epidemic of violence against Native American women. These forms of social death more often than not lead to actual deaths without recompense. Within Doro’s distorted plantation, there is no fear of racial discrimination, as many of the inhabitants are children of Doro – born black but father to many through his ability to assume the body of others at will. They therefore have mixed heritage and become racially ambiguous through Doro’s exacting and often incestuous breeding programme, and revere him as patriarch as well as a god-like figure. The success of this programme allows Doro’s children to become a race of their own in subsequent novels in the Patternist series, and colonise entire races due to their supra-human legacy. Ayunwu, as ‘wild seed’ – born and having lived for centuries outside of his settlements – is afforded a special status due to her unprecedented shapeshifting abilities and healing powers. These powers serve to protect Ayunwu from Doro’s wrath when she openly challenges his immoral and murderous approach to propagating his supra-human race. 

Butler’s Wild Seed provides the reader with two opposing approaches to constructing a community of Othered peoples, and the equally opposing shapeshifters that establish them. Doro’s shapeshifting abilities necessitate death – innumerable deaths that stretch infinitely back to his original body, and infinitely forward to the future in an immortal chain of existence. He can be read in many ways as propagating systems of oppression associated with slavery, especially through his obsessive breeding programme, which values its participants only in terms of their genetic code. Poet and essayist M. NourbeSe Philip observes: ‘“Dis place” – the space between. The legs. For the black woman “dis placed” to and in the New World, the inner space between the legs would also mutate into “dis place” – the fulcrum of the New World plantation’. Ayunwu recognizes the incongruity of separating the Othered people of Wheatley from the rest of slave-trading America whilst maintaining one of its integral systems of oppression. Although at first she cedes to Doro’s demands to produce children to add to his brood, having ‘given in to him again and again’ (p.211) she pushes back against this force that renders her the ‘fulcrum of [Doro’s] New World’, and eludes his influence for a century by assuming various animal forms. 

Doro reveres Ayunwu for her literal female labour, which encompasses her reproductive and healing abilities as it serves to further his own ends, but views her shapeshifting as menacing as it undermines his power. Devaluing such labour is still prevalent today, as entire nations were built on the backs of slaves, yet their descendants continue to fight for their rights within these nations. The devaluation of female labour also continues in the 21st century, evidenced by gendered wage inequality and the lack of maternity leave in many so-called ‘developed’ countries. Philosopher Rosi Braidotti remarks that with regards to the female shapeshifter or metamorph, ‘[t]he fact that the female body can change shape so drastically is troublesome in the eyes of the logocentric economy within which to see in the primary act of knowledge and the gaze that the basis of all epistemic awareness’. Ayunwu’s existence beyond a sexual and reproductive object disconcerts Doro, which is exacerbated by the fact that ‘as an animal, she was beyond him’ (p.97), as he cannot ‘see’ her presence when she assumes animal forms. This evasive power gives Ayunwu the mobility to establish her own community independent of Doro, and she creates a safe haven for supra-humans and racial Others by assuming the disguise of a wealthy plantation-owning white man. Although Doro immediately sees this as ‘competition’, accusing Ayunwu of ‘raising witches of [her] own’, she sees them as ‘people’ who ‘need someone who can help them’ (p.231). Alongside being the white plantation-owning patriarch, Ayunwu assumes the role of ‘mother, older sister, teacher, and when she invited it, lover’ (p.235). Instead of creating a supra-human race through a dehumanising breeding programme, Ayunwu ‘was herself, gathering family. […] They felt like her children’ (p.235), establishing a protected community based on peaceful interdependence amongst social outcasts. From the outside, the plantation’s inhabitants are viewed as socially dead, whereas Ayunwu facilitates their revival independent of wider society. As a white plantation owner, Ayunwu marries a high-class white woman who is deemed to be mentally unstable who in fact has uncontrolled psychic powers, buys and sets free a male slave destined to be no more than breeding stock, and creates a safe space for numerous other social outcasts. Although Ayunwu must assume the shape of a white man, this is not seen as an action stemming from Afro-pessimistic sentiments; Anzaldúa regards identity as ‘a changing cluster of components and shape-shifting activity […] We shift around to do the work we have to do, to create the identities we have to do to create the identities we need to live up to our potential’ (‘A New Mestiza Nation’). Ayunwu therefore understands the necessity of presenting as white to wider society to protect her community’s safety. Within her community, she is still revered for every form she takes, whereas others see her transitioning as grotesque and indicative of her awesome power. In this way, Ayunwu cultivates attitudes within her community which challenge Othering and anti-black sentiments that still continue to plague society today. 

Although this article barely skims the surface of the subversive potential of sci-fi, it demonstrates the multitudinous ways in which Butler’s and Okorafor’s writings are applicable to material contemporary issues, and can be excavated further still. Sci-fi has for too long been relegated to the sidelines of literary and popular culture, and looked on as merely a means of escapism. As evidenced in this article, literature and other artistic media can be used as thought experiments to bringing about radical socio-political change, building on past and present issues to envision a radical future. As Butler and Okorafor illustrate, radicalism may necessitate going against centuries-old systems of oppression, but what truly radical movement has ever been exempted from a bit of chaos?

Khadeeja is currently completing her MA in Postcolonial Literary and Cultural Studies at the University of Leeds. She completed an English MA (Hons) at the University of St Andrews.

Artwork by Molly Marie Aysu.

Capitalism and Community: The Decline of Tanzeemat

By Zehra Munir.

I conducted this research while part of the Laajverd Visiting School in 2017. The names of all interviewees have been anonymised, in line with their requests.

Many have made the argument that capitalism and community are not the best of bedfellows. Joseph Stiglitz put it most succinctly when he wrote that “rugged individualism and market fundamentalism have eroded any sense of community,” (The Telegraph, 2010). Critics of this view may point to the rise of virtual communities, as free market incentives have allowed social media to flourish. However, ‘community’ in the sense of physical relationships and reliance has certainly suffered in the face of the forces Stiglitz identifies. I saw this happening in a context where the transition is ongoing, recent and, thus, visible. In the summer of 2017, I conducted an intensive ethnographic study in the Gojal Valley in Pakistan centred on the money-loaning systems of the Gulmitic people. Through my days in the village of Gulmit, one thing became evident: the rise of large scale money-lending agencies and the loss of trust in relationships are closely linked

To understand what is happening in Gulmit, contextualisation is needed. Without romanticising, it is necessary to understand that, until recently, community bonds were strong in Gulmit. Even now, there exists a sort of closeness which most of us in the West would fail to understand. There is the sort of security which allows young women to grow up and walk around without fear of being catcalled, because the entire village is like family; the kind of communal feeling which means that when there is a wedding, every household cooks for the wedding feast, so that the burden does not fall on the two families directly involved. The type of care for each other which means that when the infirm cannot attend local festivals, a delivery service is organised to bring the festival meals to them. This society is far from perfect, but their community relations are stronger than many of us can conceptualise. 

Similarly, schools are run with local input, and figures such as the headteacher are treated with great respect throughout the community. Perhaps two of the greatest community-based institutions in Gulmit are the two types of Tanzeemat. One local Tanzeem is run by and exists for local women, the other by and for local men. Until recently, these two organisations represented the main money loaning service available to Gulmitic people. With all members of a Tanzeem required to deposit some money, be it 5 or 5000 rupees, every Friday and an incredibly efficient application review system, you are almost guaranteed to obtain a loan from your Tanzeem within a few days. Rejections are rare, and you know that the people judging your application are your own; they understand your situation. Be it an emergency loan to pay for your child’s university tuition fees, or any other small amount required, the committee understands your circumstances. Even when money is leaving the village economy (such as when tuition fees are paid), it is given in good faith, for the people evaluating your request have watched your son or daughter grow up alongside their own children. The system works incredibly well to finance the needs of a small but dynamic village in the mountainous areas of Pakistan. Moreover, it is not unique to Gulmit – all neighbouring villages have similar banking systems. Crucially, a Tanzeem is free of links to any bigger bank, thus making it immune to the perils of a national or global financial crisis. That is, until recently.  

Gulmit is being encouraged to become more economically successful, in the modern sense of the word, to move away from subsistence farming and to engage in market activity. Above all, it is being pushed to expand its tourist industry, by both the local and the national government. However, any expansion of the tourist industry has its costs, quite literally. Building new hotels to expand the hospitality industry is not cheap. One local hotel owner told me, in no uncertain terms, that “if the tourist industry is to expand in Gulmit, bigger loans will be needed, loans on a scale which the current Tanzeemat cannot begin to provide”. Thus, as Gojal Valley becomes a tourist hotspot, as the Gulmitic people begin to open hotels, to drive taxis, to build rooms for rent in their homes, a more long-lasting change has to occur. The large loans required to finance this new infrastructure will have to be obtained from bigger institutions, namely commercial banks, including the Al-Rahim building society and the Government of Pakistan Bank. The result: the collapse of the Tanzeemat. Community-based money loaning is all well and good until the funds of the community cannot suffice, at which point it becomes irrelevant.

After all, when the maximum loan you can obtain from a Tanzeem is but a small proportion of what you need to start up your business, it is no longer viable to stick with your local Tanzeem. Moreover, Tanzeemat cannot function if they are only used by those who need money immediately. There has to be a mix of people with different time horizons for their needs. As businesses spring up and reliance on commercial loans grows, the funds available to a Tanzeem begin to shrink. More and more people will be depositing money and obtaining loan money from commercial banks. And though its lifespan could be prolonged with investments and a greater credit ratio, how can a village kitty compete against the likes of the Bank of Punjab and, potentially in the near future, Standard Chartered? With every loan a villager obtains from Akhuwat or the National Bank, the Tanzeemat begin to be eroded. Sooner or later, free market development will have killed community-based funding.

Moreover, some of the new money loaning systems being introduced kill community links in a more fundamental, and sudden, way. These systems are those within the realm of microfinance. The experience of Gulmitic villagers confirms the results of previous studies into microfinance. Group-based lending systems, whether they are within the Islamic microfinance model of Akhuwat or the normal models of banks like the Agha Khani First Microfinance Bank, alienate those who default on their deposit. When someone in the community takes out a loan from a microfinance institution, they are grouped with other community members. The group members are all responsible for making sure that their fellow members pay back their respective loans. Time and time again, I was told of friendships broken and frustration caused when a member of the group defaulted. One man told me how he and others had to visit their defaulting friend repeatedly to try and salvage their joint loan. When the friend could not cobble together the funds to pay his share, the rest of the group had to step up. The loan may now have been paid off, but the relationship was fractured. By making social capital the collateral in this system, these banks ensure the rapid dissolution of community relationships when someone defaults. Thus, the new microfinance lending systems serve only to exacerbate the corrosion of a community, already occurring at a rapid pace as its money lending institutions begin to collapse.

In a 2008 interview, Stephen Marglin, Professor of Economics at Harvard University, stated that “markets have undermined all that is good about community”. Based on my interview-centred research, it is impossible to disagree. Although my time in Gulmit was relatively short, and I would love to go back to carry out further research, my findings present a clear trend. The development of the tourism industry in the Gojal Valley comes at the expense of the local, community-based banking system, one that is now fading into non-existence. I am sure of this also because the Gulmitic village elders supported my prediction about the weakening of the Tanzeemat as the tourism industry expands. More than that, they fit within a wider pattern that can be seen worldwide. Marglin points to the way in which the North American Free Trade Agreement opened up the Mexican market to cheap imports, and thus made it difficult for Mexican peasants to compete. This encouraged the flow of people from rural Mexico to large urban spaces, as well as to the USA, thus breaking up rural communities. Similarly, as Gulmit becomes commercialised, there is no space left either for its people to remain interdependent at a community level or for local financial organisations. I don’t want to poeticize Gulmitic society as if there was nothing wrong with it before it began to modernise, and as if it should be preserved in a timeless state. However, one thing is for sure. When globalisation encroaches and marketisation begins in earnest, it is the community that suffers.

Laughing in Difference: Revisiting Charlie Hebdo

By Brian Klug.

“How can people live together in difference?” asked Stuart Hall, the late cultural theorist. Hall, who was born in Jamaica but lived in the UK all his adult life, was well-versed in the diversity about which he wrote. He was a distinguished academic, but when he posed this question, he was not setting an exam paper: he was throwing down the gauntlet to post-colonial Britain and Europe.

In a rapidly globalising and transnational world where humanity, in all its variety, is discarding and redefining old labels, or combining them in novel ways, the question encompasses more than culture and ethnicity. Other categories of human identity, such as gender, are changing, dissolving, evolving. In such a world, no political question is more crucial than the one that Hall asked. In light of post-colonial Europe and more specifically a moment that stirred the dust of the French past – the Charlie Hebdo affair – it is important to question, what does it signify about political belonging in a post-colonial European state?

On Sunday 11th January 2015, millions of French people took to the streets in towns and cities across France, protesting the horrific attack four days earlier on the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. They bonded around the slogan ‘Je suis Charlie’. The slogan could also have been ‘La France est Charlie’, for the sense of their protest was this: France stands for free speech, including uncomfortable humour, like the cartoons mocking (the prophet) Muhammad which led to the attack in Paris. The mass protest implied a simple binary: either you identify with Charlie or you are not truly French.

Humour was used as a touchstone. But humour is not that simple nor that innocent. As a general rule, the deeper your sense of belonging to a place, the more you can afford to parody others openly and, in turn, be parodied by them. Which is why it is telling that, on the whole, the cartoons poking fun at the prophet Muhammad churned out by Charlie Hebdo in issue after issue did not tickle the fancy of France’s North African Arab population, most of whom are Muslim.

French Muslims are, of course, diverse. This includes the ways in which individuals see their relationship to Islam. However, you do not have to be a believer (let alone devout) to fail to see the joke or to appreciate the satire when the Prophet is depicted naked in pornographic poses. It can be enough if you (or your antecedents) are from Algeria or one of the other former French colonies in the Maghreb, especially if you live on the margins of society, in les banlieues: the poorer suburbs around Paris and other major cities. From this vantage point, each and every one of Charlie’s pointed caricatures is yet another dagger aimed directly at your collective heart by an establishment from which you are effectively excluded; which is hardly amusing.

It might seem counter-intuitive to refer to Charlie as part of the French establishment, as the magazine fires salvos at every respectable target it can find. But, ironically, this is precisely the source of its status. Charlie is the unofficial jester at the Republican court. It is France’s freelance Shakespearian Fool, self-appointed to perform the role of lampooning the powerful and mocking the superstitious. Its origins lie in a Republican tradition, one that looks back to the eighteenth-century genesis of this Enlightenment state with its contempt for all things royal and clerical. Whether Charlie’s relentless ridicule of Islam is true to that tradition or, on the contrary, a betrayal of its roots — a betrayal of the noble role of satire — is, however, a moot point. The magazine has its defenders and detractors. The former praise Charlie for its courage: for taking risks and breaking taboos. But the question of whether it plays the part of republican hero or street bully depends on whom it chooses to pillory or taunt. The privileged? Or the disadvantaged? Those on the margins? Or the group to whom the state basically belongs?

Into this divided France the catchphrase ‘Je suis Charlie’ fell like an axe, cutting even deeper into French society – into the very crack or fissure to which Charlie itself has made a modest contribution with its caricatures of Muhammad calculated to ‘offend’. In the public debate over Charlie (and over free speech in general), the word ‘offend’ has proven to be controversial, having been stretched so thin that it covers almost any reaction that could be described as negative, regardless of the nature of the provocation or the impact it has on the person ‘offended’. But there is a world of difference between, say, affronting church-goers by using an obscenity, and, say, humiliating a group that is already demeaned, accentuating their deep sense of alienation from the nation. Lumping together cases as different as these under the rubric of ‘offend’ muddies the waters. For one thing, it treats all negative reactions as equal when they are not. For another, it tends to reduce them all to the lowest common denominator; for ‘offend’ is, after all, a rather mild term. Vicars are offended in Victorian novels (especially at teatime). But they belong, securely; they feel they belong in the company of the people at whose words they take offence. A deep sense of alienation is the antithesis of a deep sense of belonging. The give-and-take of the game of ‘offend’ only makes sense among people who, deep down, know they belong on the playing field: people who feel at home. On the periphery, le mot is hardly juste.

On the periphery, people may feel they do not belong, not in the full or deep sense of the word: the sense in which you feel that the country belongs to you. For those who not only were not Charlie but who felt nullified by Charlie, the slogan was a message sent from the centre to the periphery: “If you want to be one of us, identify with Charlie.” Adopting the slogan, France closed ranks; and the protests on 11 January 2015 were a massive mise en abyme, a hall of mirrors in which the French self was reflected to infinity. This was fraternité with a vengeance: fraternité for some (Us), hostilité for others (Them).

What is the way forward? How might the French people pick up Stuart Hall’s gauntlet and live together in difference? The answer begins with recognising that difference is not mere difference: it is the visible trace of a terrible history. The first lesson in political belonging in any post-colonial European state (whether France, Britain, or any other) is this: there cannot be a future together without reckoning with the past. 

This is not necessarily the past that Europe imagines for itself. Europeans are in the habit of thinking that for centuries they have been in the vanguard of the human race, showing the way forward to a backward and wayward world. France’s ‘civilising mission’ is well known, but every European state that planted its feet on the soil (and the neck) of other countries has harboured a similar idea of itself. Each has groaned, to a greater or lesser extent, under the ‘white man’s burden’: the burden of imposing rule on other people in their own lands for their own good, the burden of extracting their minerals and other resources (including human) for the well-being of the native population; in short, the incredible burden of being obliged to conquer, subdue and exploit for the sake of the advancement of humanity as a whole: to civilise. And even if Europe today modestly plays down the civilising role it has played in the world, humanity, so deeply in Europe’s debt, has not forgotten. Perhaps, though, it remembers it differently.

Habits of thinking die hard, as do structures of unequal power. It would be nice to think that the past is passé and we are free to plan the European future from scratch. But this is a dangerous illusion. The past is too recent not to be present. Moreover, it is not past: it has merely metamorphosed, adapting itself to changing circumstances. Since the end of the Second World War, denizens of former colonies of European states have emigrated to the former metropole, where they have enjoyed a similar status to the status they once had in their countries of origin under imperial rule. Take, for example, those French Muslims of North African extraction who, as Paul Silverstein has put it, “feel excluded from a nation whose citizenship they nominally hold”. They experience their lives in France “as a post-colonial continuation of … colonial forms of exclusion and violence”. The colonial periphery has not disappeared: it has merely changed location, moving to the European continent from its offshore sites in Africa and Asia. It is the then in the now.

So, when we broach Europe’s future, we begin not in the present but in the present-past. This is the tense of our enquiry. If we ignore the past and the painful task of reckoning with it, then the question ‘How can people live together in difference?’ ceases to be political and becomes merely sentimental. In the present-past, this question is not only about bridging differences of culture, it is also about overcoming the disparity in status written into the script of colonial history. In a way, ‘Je suis Charlie’ was a collective denial of the past – and therefore of the present.

In short, reckoning with the past is the necessary condition for living together in difference. Laughing together too.

Brian is a Senior research fellow and lecturer in Philosophy at St. Benet’s Hall, Oxford.

Artwork by Den de Barros.