NON-FICTION: READING FROM THE MARGINS

22 Mar 2020

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Bina Shah’s essay on the late Sabeen Mahmud served to remind one of the pain and bewilderment that many Pakistanis felt in the wake of Mahmud’s death | Dawn file photo
Bina Shah’s essay on the late Sabeen Mahmud served to remind one of the pain and bewilderment that many Pakistanis felt in the wake of Mahmud’s death | Dawn file photo

Memory is a fickle thing. Yet, sometimes it alights on an event and attaches itself firmly, so that a particular moment becomes conspicuous in our memory of a certain phase of our lives. It was March 2016. My friend — a Bengali Indian studying with me at the University of Oxford — recounted this. She was having lunch, eating a sandwich on a bench in the small park outside the office where she worked in the evenings during our student days. As she sat there, an old white woman came up to her out of nowhere. She looked at her pointedly and said, “Shut your brown mouth while you eat.” Then walked off.

I asked my friend how she responded to such an unexpected attack. She said the shock was so strong it took her a while to register what had happened. Soon, the June 2016 referendum for Brexit took place in the United Kingdom and this kind of racism erupted more widely in the country — this time with a certain impunity, a certain pervasive flair.

We live in a greatly altered world. The rise of right wing nationalisms and of political intolerance has manifested itself in the curtailing of human rights and the silencing of civil societies across the world. In such a politically bleak time, can wounded communities or individuals, who have been historically subjected to discrimination and systematic disempowerment, find any solace in literature? The “brave new words” in this anthology of the same name, edited by Susheila Nasta — the title an obvious play on Aldous Huxley’s historic 1932 novel — try to offer something of an answer to this overarching question, by drawing together essays by writers from a range of marginalised positions: black writers, black women writers, immigrant writers, gay writers and writers from the global South.

In the opening essay, ‘Call Yourself English’, British writer Blake Morrison vividly recounts his personal experience of a world changed starkly in the wake of Brexit as a biracial, middle-class, male writer. Describing post-Brexit England, he writes: “‘[g]o home’ the bigots cry. But home isn’t a place you come from. Home is a place you make. In the 1940s my mother came from Ireland to make hers in rural Yorkshire.” The disillusionment of this scenario is brought home when he describes the England he imagined as a teenager, a world in which “none of this was going to happen ... we would all be trans — transnational, that is: fluid, pluralistic, opposed to borders.” Morrison, however, is hopeful as he glimpses a liberating force in literature. At a time where borders, both territorial and imagined, are pervasively affecting the way people imagine and treat those distant and different from them, he suggests that “there remains a way to roam freely: in books.”

This is an invitation to the reader to reflect on reading as a practice. Reading this essay, I found myself wondering, in what ways can we as writers, readers and academics alter both the literature we choose to focus on and the way we read it, to read more inclusively and diversely? The necessity of this becomes alarmingly clear in another essay, ‘The Minds of Writers’, by Jamaican poet Kei Miller, which calls out the thinly veiled dehumanisation that gay and queer characters have been subjected to in Caribbean literature. Miller argues that there is a great responsibility for writers to fully explore communities and individuals as characters with real life and specificity, rather than depicting them as caricatures. He is one of the writers in this anthology who spells the task for writers quite clearly: “[t]hat is the high and holy order of writers — to tell people who they are, to offer them both the plodding banality and the incredible magic hood of their personhood.” And so he echoes other voices in the anthology when he issues a gentle plea to resist a cursory overview of any book or genre of literature. Instead, he advocates a conscious and full-bodied engagement with literature, reading deeply and with self-awareness, to combat biases both within ourselves and others. For Miller, this entails that we become conscious of how the literary canon has historically been complicit in processes of marginalisation and that we make efforts to resist, and renegotiate the terms of the dominant literary discourse itself, when we interact with it as readers or writers.

A new anthology of essays questions whether communities or individuals historically subjected to discrimination and systematic disempowerment can find solace in literature

In a cultural moment in which travel is glamorised and mass-marketed as a means of finding your ‘self’, a common thread in several essays is the discomfort of not fully embracing any one ‘home’ or place of belonging. By studying immigrants’ experiences, the disillusionment that lies behind many such aspirations is probed, leading Polish-born writer Eva Hoffman to declare that “most people still live local rather than global lives, and they derive their sense of attachment to such places — a need which has been ignored by the more globalised ‘liberal elites’.”

Brave New Words explores the theme of exclusion at various levels — it articulates not only the consequences of being expelled from countries and territorial affiliations, but from language itself. In her essay, ‘Seeking the Tree of Life’, Hoffman recounts her memories of migrating from Poland to England and trying to adopt English as a language. She writes: “for a while ... I was in effect without language, as Polish went deep underground ... and English remained a baffling terra incognita. But what I felt even more saliently was that I was without an internal language in which to talk to myself. This was a brief but very radical and informative state, for it made me realise to what extent language constructs us, shapes our interior lives.” Personal memoirs such as this where writers venture into terra incognita as they delve into the abyss of memory make these essays so rewarding for the reader as she finds experiences which are, perhaps, painfully shared.

Another essay that I found to be didactic in a soothing, and at the same time sharply illuminating, way was Bernardine Evaristo’s ‘What a Time to be a (Black), (British), (Womxn) Writer’. Evaristo, whose novel Girl, Woman, Other jointly won the Booker Prize last year, offers a detailed history of the black feminist movement in the UK during the last half of the century. Evaristo stringently beckons black writers and activists to learn from their predecessors by fully appreciating the rich history of black women writers in the age before social media, when activism was a more gradual and less marketable process.

Evaristo issues several important warnings that no one else is talking about in this moment of flamboyant, widely self-proclaimed progress with the rise of movements such as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter. Her advice to young writers, especially, is to resist the enchantment and self-congratulatory impulse created by immediate recognition and fame through social media. As a young writer, I have personally struggled to carve out the intimate isolation that good writing grows out of, in an era in which we are constantly bombarded with images and news of other people’s lives. And so Evaristo’s words hit me quite hard as she bluntly writes: “we were doing it for ourselves rather than hoping to be cherry-picked by this country’s white cultural productions ... our journeys to sustaining a lifelong career comes from a deep place within us.”

Evaristo’s words led me to wonder, what is this “deep place within us” from which good writing comes? If I were to imagine this as a real space, what would it look like? Is it a space that allows human fragility and vulnerability? How do we navigate the often cold, hard fact of difference in this space? It also clears the space for more critical questions, such as how we should read literature in the ultra-digital age and what new responsibilities this volatile time brings on writers.

What’s great about this collection is that it does offer some degree of an answer to these overwhelming questions. However, it more importantly manages to fulfil its aim to include a wide range of diverse voices — geographically and culturally. I was, for instance, pleasantly surprised to find in the anthology Pakistani writer Bina Shah’s essay ‘The Life and Death of Pakistan’s Sabeen Mahmud’, about the human rights activist who was murdered in 2015. Reading Shah’s essay, I was utterly heartbroken as I revisited the pain and jolting sense of bewilderment that many Pakistanis felt in the wake of Mahmud’s death.

Which leads me to the point that this book is better enjoyed if it is treated as a starting point — an introduction to some fine, contemporary intellectuals and writers, and to the study of universally shared experiences such as marginalisation, exile, belonging and loneliness in the 21st century. I, for one, am excited to start reading — as the writers here suggest — more widely, deeply and holistically this year.

The reviewer holds an MPhil in South Asian Studies from the University of Oxford and currently teaches at LUMS

Brave New Words
Edited by Susheila Nasta
Myriad, UK
ISBN: 978-1912408207
304pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 22nd, 2020