The following is a brief paper I gave at a roundtable discussion on Resistance and Resilience in our writing
As a writer I have always written against. Against what? Against the narratives of ‘other’ that I have been privy to in much of my reading life. Against the stereotypes of us, and by us I mean not them, and the views of what we can and cannot write about, what is and is not acceptable. This is the philosophy I use in my teaching.
As writers from the Caribbean or Africa or Asia including those in the diaspora, or of any place that is not considered western, we have the chance to remove ourselves from the margins and take centre stage. The hybridization and creolization of our writing whether from here or the diaspora is a natural growth of colonization but is also an act of resistance against the same.
I’m going to briefly summarise how I use both resistance and resilience in my writing, using my novel, A House With No Angels (AHWNA) as an example but also referring to other short stories I have written.
Scheingold (2010: 2) suggests the term ‘novels of political estrangement’ as a way of labelling a new genre of novel that looks past the big events of the century and concentrates on people, individuals whose lives have been shaped by what was happening, but who were largely unaware of any political influence. He states that ‘the literary imagination has long been recognised as capturing the spirit and the soul of the times’. Writing resistance concentrates on ‘the everyday lives of victims, victimizers, temporizers, opportunists, true believers, and those who have simply averted their eyes…’ (2).
There are many ways that we use when writing resistance, and most times we don’t necessarily think about it, we are just telling the story that was wrapped up inside of us and needed to get out. However, the moment we realise a character on the page in all their ordinariness, in their fully rounded capacity, we are resisting a narrative that for hundreds of years was placed on us. Sometimes we approach it purposefully, other times it is a by-product of the story we are telling, but always it is necessary.
I approached my novel purposefully. I had the intention to disrupt and resist. Although it is set primarily in Manchester, in the UK, it is centred around the 5th Pan African Congress which was the catalyst for independence for many nations in the Caribbean and around the world. One of the first acts of resistance in AHWNA was Ade not narrating the world politics that were taking place during her first years in Manchester. She arrived in 1945, at the end of World War II, she attended political meetings, she was at the 5th Pan African Congress, and therefore, she should have been aware of what was happening on a grander scale. However, none of the big political happenings meant anything to her personally and it is a personal story that is being told. This sentiment refers back to Boyers (2005) and the premise that by the telling of individual stories the whole story can be narrated from a different and personal perspective. This gives way to resilience and resistance in their simplest forms.
My novel is narrated by three women and the man at the centre of the novel does not have a voice. This was a conscious decision and part of my political stance at that time. I wrote about World War II from Ade’s point of view when she was living in Nigeria and listening in at her father’s meetings. At one point she tells her cousin that the whole world is at war, to which Funmi’s response is laughter. This was not an attempt for me to ignore the atrocities that took place in the war, but to highlight that not all the world was aware of what was happening and what was taking place. Resistance against the grand narrative is what makes our work stand out.
Ade’s character is based on the women who took part in the Aba women’s riots of 1929, which gives a female, African view of colonisation. I attempted to incorporate the spirit of these women in the way that Ade takes over the house at the age of eighteen; in the way that she manages her affairs without relying on a man; the way in which she provides a home for the students who are the future. I wanted to show resilience, without using the trope of the strong black woman who does not need consideration. My resistance to that trope was to make Ade complete and complicated and flawed.
In placing Elizabeth into a period that reflects postcolonialism I had to derive a way in which to represent this on the page. For me, personally, in the early days there were difficulties with postcolonialism as a theory that, in its base form, attempted to categorise people from different nations and experiences of colonialism under one banner. I began with the struggles that I had encountered around the subject. Namely, the language used and its inaccessibility by the very people postcolonial theory represents. I considered the ways in which people were oppressed, marginalised and excluded and how this made me feel uncomfortable, both in reading about it and through personal experience growing up in the 70s as a second generation migrant.
With these emotions in place, Elizabeth began to emerge as a character who did not sit comfortably on the page. I used her language and repetitiveness to represent the difficulties presented by the language of postcolonial theory. I added layers to her character that were unpleasant, i.e., her self-obsessive thought patterns and self-pity, this was an attempt to look at postcolonialism from the perspective of the pre-colonised people on the margins, rather than theoretical postcolonialism. Her role within the wider story was to explore a moment in history that was in a state of flux. In particular, I was thinking about independence of a nation and the shape of that independence being a theoretical construct rather than an actuality. Therefore I placed her white father in Nigeria to highlight that actually, independence or not, Britain had still not released its hold over its empire.
What I am attempting to portray is how I chose to give voices to marginalised characters in the postcolonial sense, voices that could not and should not be silenced. It was with writerly awareness, born out of postcolonial studies, that I explored how my characters would develop on the page.
During my research, I attended Black British Feminist Conference was based around the Olive Morris Archives and the book Heart of the Race, (Bryan et al, 1974). Olive Morris was a Jamaican born, UK based activist. The conference went into details of what women of colour in London had accomplished in the 1970s through resistance to the brutality of institutionalised racism. My research also took in the film Pressure (Ové, 1976), produced around this time, which offers a version of the experience of second generation Caribbean people in London during the 1970s. It was a well-crafted film, co-written by Sam Selvon. However, the female protagonist within the film was portrayed as highly sexualised in relation to the male characters. After she had given a rousing political performance at a meeting she was beaten by the police and when released was imagined by and shown naked in bed with a fifteen-year-old schoolboy. This showed how the women who were making such a bid for freedom and equality were not taken seriously, including by the black men who were in a position to promote the fight at that time. I wanted Elizabeth to reflect some of the inequality that was evident for women over this period. Elizabeth is an act of resistance against theoretical postcolonialism and patriarchy.
Kutes, is a third generation migrant and appears not to be restricted by the politics of womanhood or colonisation. She is born into a political era that has seen the 1982 race riots, right wing politics and strong immigration laws. She has no yearning for ‘home’ because she is Black British. She is home. However, as her story progresses she becomes aware of political inconsistencies within her world and turns to her mother and grandmother for guidance, acknowledging that they were ‘into politics innit’.
For Kutes I have used immigration as a baseline political stance. This is a theme that has run full circle within the novel from Ade and Peter and the 1940s to the present day. What I wanted to present with Kutes is the way in which young black people in cosmopolitan cities within the UK can often forget that they are ‘black’, partly because of the equality legislation that has attempted to absorb issues of difference into the political system, and thereby reduce the fight of the people. Third and fourth generation black British youngsters for a short time felt equal with their peers despite continued media evidence of race hate crimes. Of course, this is now a moot point with the necessary resurgence of movements that have taken place over the past few years that have become a global call for both resistance and resilience.
With this character of Kutes, outside of the political realm, I used language as a form of resistance. This is something that every writer has at their disposal. Language and the way in which it can lift itself from the page whether in pidgin, creole or the hybrid of teenage skaz. Claiming our own vernacular on the page without apology is a weapon that we can use that centralises, claims, locates and identifies.
I have never approached a story or poem that I have needed to write without a strong sense of ‘writing a wrong’. My first published short story, The Dance, pushes against the forced deportation of young people who were child asylum seekers, but when reaching the age of 18 were fighting not to be expelled from the UK. My latest short story looks at ageism, colourism and the act of dying. A chapter in my current novel deals with the Windrush scandal that is taking place in the UK, and gives a voice to the people that are overlooked by governments, institutions, schools and families.
There is always a space to write resistance, to write ourselves into the narrative. In literature it is this writing of ourselves and exploring the strength that is in our past and our histories that enables us to write our future. It is in our words that we will find the strength, resilience and sustainability to survive this world we live in, both locally and globally.
BOYERS, R. (2005). The dictator’s dictation: the politics of novels and novelists. New York, Columbia University Press.
BRYAN, B., DADZIE, S., & SCAFE, S. (1985). The heart of the race: Black women’s lives in Britain. London, Virago.
OVÉ, H., BUCKLER, R., SELVON, S., NORVILLE, H., JAMES, O., SINGUINEAU, F., & LIJERTWOOD, L. (2004). Pressure. London, British Film Institute.
SCHEINGOLD, S. A. (2010). The political novel: re-imagining the twentieth century. New York, Continuum.