‘These writers draw us as readers into exciting new worlds and invite us to ask particularly interesting and often difficult questions about ourselves.’ – Postcolonial Writers Make Worlds
In 2017 Professor of World Literature in the Oxford Faculty of English Elleke Boehmer and Dr Erica Lombard, then a postdoctoral fellow at Oxford now at the University of Cape Town, embarked upon a project which explored how reading British literature shapes readers’ conceptions of Britain today. Postcolonial Writers Make Worlds is in part the record of that research project, and in part a resource. The site is populated with BAME authors’ biographies, overviews of their work, and short critical essays aimed at secondary school learners and undergraduates. Boehmer and Lombard found that writing by BAME authors was being misrepresented and underrepresented in literary statistics, despite the diversity of British society. Interestingly, they also found that demographic differences did not limit readers’ capacity to identify with or feel sympathy for characters of different backgrounds and experiences.
In a faculty in which scholars of twenty-first century literature are woefully under-represented, Boehmer and Lombard asked uncomfortable questions about who is reading whom, and why.
The Great Writers Inspire at Home series of talks, housed within the larger project, hosted contemporary BAME authors in Oxford, including such eminent voices as Linton Kwesi Johnson in conversation with Paul Gilroy, Reni Eddo-Lodge, Daljit Nagra, Kamila Shamsie, Bernadine Evaristo, and others. Audio-visual recordings of the workshops are available to view on the site and give some insight into the relevance of a project like this one at the University of Oxford. According to their own statistics, Oxford’s BAME undergraduate student intake in 2017, the same year this project began, was 17.9%. The importance of representation in an institution already deemed elite, intimidating and inaccessible, cannot be overstated.
But it’s not just about representation. BAME authors’ work suffers from an anthropological gaze that casts these authors as representatives of homogenised cultures, an entirely inaccurate, essentialising perspective. The short critical essays included in the project offer some resistance to this essentialising view by examining the formal qualities of the literature featured. These essays provide ample evidence of literary value and also allow learners who are exploring British literature, and perhaps considering studying at Oxford, the opportunity to see that literary studies here is not just British identity in Shakespeare and furniture in Virginia Woolf. The value of work of this kind is acknowledged, but not valued higher than, representations of gendered violence in Warsan Shire’s poetry, natural chaos in Andrea Levy’s Small Island, liminality in Vahni Capildeo’s work, and ‘passing’ in colonial India and Britain in Hari Kunzru’s The Impressionist.
A project of this kind does two things:
It makes space for voices and ideas not commonly heard or amplified.
It highlights silences where these voices have been previously erased.
In the Faculty of English, which is one of if not the largest English department in the UK, the number of graduate research students working on postcolonial concerns is in the single digits. At the university at which the architecture of Empire was constructed, that suggests a damning lack of self-reflexivity. Perhaps Postcolonial Writers Make Worlds offers a glimmer of hope.
Contemporary historical analyses tell us that Britain was multicultural and yet a presumption of the dominance and proliferation of whiteness and literature by white writers persists, particularly at Oxford. Focusing on the work of BAME British authors whose descriptions of Britain in their poetry, fiction, and non-fiction has wrought a new sense of what Britain is, and its place in world, Postcolonial Writers Make Worlds asks uncomfortable questions of identity politics, literary value, hierarchy, and representation.
written by Chelsea Haith
The Postcolonial Writers Make Worlds poster display can be viewed on the third floor of the Radcliffe Humanities building on Woodstock Road. For more information please visit writersmakeworlds.com
All images are of the posters, designed by Dr Erica Lombard.