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Writing Oxford Otherwise

Where in Oxford can we get a t-shirt with Dambudzo Marechera’s face on it? Sure, he didn’t graduate, and he did allegedly attempt arson at New College in the 1970s… But he is one of Oxford’s most talented and (in)famous author-alumni. Marechera deserves at least as much recognition as the fictional Harry Potter, who, unless I am mistaken, was never a student at the university, and yet is the subject of frequent tours around the city and colleges. The author of The House of Hunger is not alone amongst the numbers of those writers who walked the streets of Oxford as student, staff or local, and yet, as one respondent commented: ‘No one ever talks about them!’

Well now we do. Uncomfortable Oxford is launching a new tour - the Uncomfortable Literary Tour, which will feature in the 2019 Festival of Science and Ideas. This new tour is intended to challenge assumptions about Oxford’s literary heritage and profile, while highlighting conversations about access, reputation, privilege, and gendered academic disciplines. What might happen if visitors were encouraged to see beyond the mythologies and narratives of Tolkien, CS Lewis and Inspector Morse’s Oxford? Without erasing these figures of Oxford’s literary heritage, it is time to raise up some others alongside them. After all, whose stories matter, if not our own?

Stories are how we make sense of our lives. We all use narrative to describe our emotions, our experiences, our fears, and our hopes. Using language, and our capacity as human beings to self-identify through language, we make sense of our world and the world as others experience it. But some stories go untold, or unheard. Sometimes this is because a grander narrative is at play. Sometimes this is because the person speaking is in the minority. Sometimes it’s because what a person has to say is difficult to hear, and possibly hard to accept.

Oxford boasts a richer and more diverse ‘heritage of letters’ than many suspect, just waiting to be discovered. It has famously been the setting of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, who uses the spires of Oxford as a setting to display the tensions between erudition and conservatism. Yet it is also the location of an important 20th century satire; Max Beerbohm’s 1911 novel Zuleika Dobson, after the eponymous protagonist. The novel charts the infiltration of a ‘common’ but very beautiful woman into the upper-echelons of Oxford’s elite. The novel culminates in a mass suicide of the undergraduate class due to their infatuation with the beautiful but lowly-born woman and Zuleika makes for Cambridge, seeking a man who will not succumb to her allure. Beerbohm was intent on satirising the moral and intellectual corrosion of Edwardian Oxford in the early 20th century.

Tolkien may have written some of his finest work while teaching in Oxford, but Britain’s great poet Alice Oswald, an alumna of the university, has recently made history as the first female Professor of Poetry this year. Inspector Morse may have solved his mysteries stomping the picturesque cobblestones but writers and thinkers such as Iris Murdoch, Vahni Capildeo, and Jeanette Winterson trod these streets in real life, incubating their own literary offerings of philosophy, poetry and fiction. The controversial 2001 Nobel Prize for Literature winner VS Naipaul graduated with a 2:1 from University College. Some of Britain’s greatest dystopian fiction was influenced by events and conversations that began with the Huxley family here in Oxford, at Balliol College and in the Oxford Union debate chamber.

Knowing these stories changes how we see the city, and equally changes the city’s story. It’s not made less for the introduction of these stories, but rather more. There are more tales to be told, more people to remember, more narratives to introduce. Let’s not limit ourselves to a single story, and instead embrace a fuller, more modern, honest, and self-reflexive heritage of letters in Oxford.

written by Chelsea Haith

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