The Empire Writes Back (Not That Empire, The Other One)

I chose Sussex university for its reputation for student activism and internationalism. I was done with my twee girl’s school in Norfolk studying Chaucer, Jane Austen, Shakespeare and the perceived ‘greatness’ of the British Empire. School was, well, white. Very white. I was laughed at in a music class for not knowing what was on Last Night of The Proms. I argued with teachers over my perspective of A Passage to India and my thoughts on the Indian railways. The class where they tried to teach me about Hinduism was, well, an utter joke. In history, we studied the Tudors, and The Stuarts, before skipping lightly to the Nazis in Germany and Bolshevik Russia. The curriculum conveniently missed out the Bengal Famine, Partition, and the long history of slavery and colonialism the British Empire was built upon. In short, it was a white, white world, with a white reading of the past. White-story. His-story. None of it was my story.

And so, I headed to Brighton, where my first lecturer was from the Caribbean and another was from India. I discovered The Empire Writes Back – a textbook which looks at the powerful forces of language in ‘post-colonial’ writing and asks: ‘Where is the centre of the world?’ By placing white Britain at the centre and privileging that position as the default, everyone else is forced to hyphenate or position themselves around it, perpetuating the Empire, Darth Vader style. It was pivotal for me to discover this radical critique and to be encouraged to be critical of the ‘great’ British Empire. Even the phrase post-colonial seems dated now. What’s ‘post-colonial’ anyway? Why are we still making everything about the colonies? It’s a way to whitewash over what the colonies actually were. It’s a way for academic luvvies to feel better about Britain’s past. It’s a posh word to de-criminalise and normalise it while you slurp your ‘British’ tea…

Next, a love affair with the writing of American writer Toni Morrison. Maya Angelou, Jamaica Kincaid, Alice Walker and Zora Neale-Hurston too. I was absorbed in their struggle against slavery and racism in America. I identified with them, even from my privileged life as a doctor’s daughter, educated at a girl’s school, living in a nice house with a swimming pool. That’s my privileged position. It doesn’t mask the hurt of being called a Paki, or being told to ‘bugger off back to my own country’ though. Not sure where they want me to go? So, the American writers helped me process that, and identify with a struggle. Plus, I could talk about it with friends who were much happier to talk about the US civil rights movement than the British slave trade. (That would be a little too close to home.)

But there came a point when I needed to look for more. I was missing reading my story. Where were the stories of the Indian diaspora? My parents’ generation, responding to the call of the ‘colonial home’, arriving with £3 in their pockets when Britain needed doctors, nurses and workers. What they faced on arrival was no welcome. It was a cold, harsh reality of how Britain treats people who are not white. Trying to rent a room and seeing ‘no coloureds’ in the window. Being shouted at to ‘GO HOME’. Colonial home, the Mother Country? Er, no, not really.

Slowly, the stories did start appearing in popular culture, mostly through the next generation. Meera Syal’s novel Anita & Me reflected a life I recognised. Gurinder Chadha’s film Bend It Like Beckham felt familiar. My cousins and I started seeing people who looked like us reading the news. There was even a token Indian family in Eastenders! In 2014, Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake felt like home; the story of a Bengali American family with a character with my name. She inspired me to start writing. As Toni Morrison said: “If you find a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” To read the story I want to read, I have to write it. (Yeah yeah, just don’t ask me how many words I’ve written!)

What we need, of course, is more. More writing from different perspectives; more reading what is written; more films, more TV showing the differences in British experiences and the real stories behind it all. Because it is only by illuminating all the stories and those differences, by reflecting and sharing that we can hope to see change.

You see, the Empire has always written back. In the words of Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore:

You can’t cross the sea merely by standing and staring at the water.

This is uncomfortable for everyone. We all need to cross that water and experience the ripples, waves and storms along the way to reach understanding.

Wanna learn more about this stuff? Here’s a reading list:

  • Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race – Reni Eddo-Lodge
  • The Good Immigrant – Nikesh Shukla
  • Brit(ish) – Afua Hirsch
  • Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire – Akala
  • The Empire Writes Back – Bill Ashcroft
  • Girl, Woman, Other – Bernardine Evaristo
  • Anita & Me – Meera Syal
  • The Namesake – Jhumpa Lahiri
  • A Passage To India – E.M. Forster
  • The King Of The Dark Chamber – Rabindranath Tagore
  • The Bluest Eye – Toni Morrison
  • Beloved – Toni Morrison
  • I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou
  • Lucy – Jamaica Kincaid
  • The Autobiography Of My Mother – Jamaica Kincaid
  • The Colour Purple – Alice Walker
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God – Zora Neale-Hurston
  • Writing is Third Career for Toni Morrison – article

Notes:

There are loads of other books you can read to educate yourself about race and racism in Britain. I picked the ones which impacted me. If you’re not sure where to start, I recommend Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race. And please bear in mind that Reni Eddo-Lodge asks that you borrow a copy, or pass your copy on to someone and make a donation to The Minnesota Freedom Fund or another charity to help. She does not want to profit every time a black person is killed.

I have donated my fee for writing this blog to The Stephen Lawrence Trust. Click here if you want to donate too.

 

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11 Comments. Leave new

  • Really important read, this is an experience so many of our generation can relate to completely, and we need to hear more from Mo and people like her. The reading list is great too.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Allegra Chapman
    17 June 2020 10:59 am

    This is such a powerful and thought-provoking post! I’m off to make a start on that reading list now.

    Reply
  • Powerful piece with a very serious message, we owe it to everyone and the next generation to ensure all of our histories are taught, ignorance helps no-one, thank you Mo.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Susan Macdonald
    17 June 2020 11:39 am

    i was grateful for an introduction to Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea also at Sussex Uni. I can recall a feelings of joy that we could re-voice characters that have been shut up in attics for too long. Will be moving onto your suggestions right after Who Killed Malcolm X.

    Reply
  • Thank you so much for such a great post and the list of resources. A really thought-provoking piece and I hope to read more from your powerful voice!

    Reply
  • Hello everyone, it’s my first pay a visit at this site,
    and piece of writing is genuinely fruitful for me, keep up posting these content.

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    Reply
  • Thank you so much Mo – a very thought provoking, insightful piece, beautifully written. I’m genuinely inspired to go and seek out a much broader range of literature for both myself and my kids – please keep doing what you’re doing.

    Reply
  • I’m not much of a reader, but I promise to read your book.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Sima Turpin
    18 June 2020 11:19 am

    What an important piece of writing. I can totally relate given my similar upbringing and being a child of Indian immigrants. These truths need to be told and heard in the hope that change will happen. I look forward to reading more from you, Mo.

    Reply
  • Really great article. Very thought provoking and has made me realise how limiting the school curriculum was when I was growing up. Hopefully by the time my toddler’s go to school things will have changed….I doubt it though. I will make sure I educate them on these issues and definitely be reading the recommended books!

    Reply
  • Thanks Mo for sharing your experiences so beautifully on such an important topic, and providing a reading list to boot. I’m looking forward to reading more from you.

    Reply

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