Some Theses on Monsters; occasioned by reading, and in place of a review of, Margrét Helgadóttir and Jo Thomas, eds, African Monsters (Fox Spirits Books, 2015)

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[A version of this piece appeared on the Salvage website]

We live in a world being made monstrous.
By us. Inhuman and obscene (and anthropocene). Not merely unhomely but uninhabitable.

And it is a time of monsters.
Aliens and kaiju, zombies and mutants, giant robots and costumed freaks lay waste to our cities. Rumbling urban smackdowns between unknowable forces scorch the Earth for those with an eye to the main chance. Property developers. Gentrifiers. Buy-to-let landlords. Their snouts in the tattered remains of a public purse no longer really intended to serve the public. At the same time, politicians and journalists casually – and with the most deadly of intentions – label people on our borders and estates and social security as not really human at all.

Monsters mean.
They are good for thinking with – from Marx’s vampire capitalists and cyborg factories to the brain-eating undead ghouls that shamble relentlessly across all our post-millennial screens, large and small, dragging the mechanisms by which biopolitical states of exception operate out into plain sight.

Even though monsters might not exist they are the most material of metaphors, and more than mere metaphor.

They matter and make meaning.

Monsters refuse monstrosity.
In Tade Thompson’s ‘One Hundred and Twenty Days of Sunlight’, a deliberately self-interred then accidentally disinterred West African vampire tells his tale. He turned his back on the human world, but had to return to it to learn how to be in a world to which he could never belong. With chilling composure he observes armies clash and people kill for reasons he cannot fathom. He remembers a tale he was told in childhood in which – reworking Dracula’s voyage to Britain – one of the vampire kind, taken unknowingly, broke free in a slaveship and killed everyone onboard. Despite this, the monster, it is clear, was not the real monster. Like the protagonist, the monster refuses – rather than denies – monstrosity. The monster resists and refutes it. He buries himself. He walks away.

‘He had the combined face of a pig and a monkey, which comforted her.’ And so it should. All of us.
Even if we must rip this line from Dilman Dila’s ‘Monwor’ completely out of context.

You must look closely to spot the monster. Although it’s not hard.
The eponymous and implied monster of Tendai Huchu’s ‘The Chikwambo’ is a motley being, an exquisite corpse: it has ‘the face of a new born baby’, albeit with ‘the head dangl[ing] to the side as if stitched up to the neckless body’, and the ‘hands’ of a ‘monkey, the legs of a baboon and [a] torso made of a patchwork of cloth and dried animal skins, fur from rabbits and cows’. A Chikwambo is created by huroyi, or witchcraft, usually for a businessman looking to get rich. All he needs to do is feed it with a relative’s blood and ‘that blood metamorphose[s] into money’.

It’s a labour-power equation. The Chikwambo can eat or die; the businessman should fuck off and die.

Likewise, in Chikodili Emelumadu’s ‘Bush Baby’, there’s a wastrel gambler turned thief, the gwei-gwei pursuing and torturing him for stealing its mat, and the men who lied to the wastrel gambler thief, tricking him into stealing from the forest-spirit even though they know it will cost him – agonisingly – his life. Spot the monster.

Is there some calculus by which we can determine the moment at which the becoming-monstrous occurs? At which capital is embodied and the capitalist becomes capital?

When the monster is monstrated and the line is drawn, the monstrator is always on the wrong side of it.
See Apartheid (cf. James Bennett and Dave Johnston’s comic ‘A Divided Sun’).

Monsters are the world.
In Zambia’s Ndola sunken lakes the Ichitapa lurks. If your shadow falls on the water, the monster will cut it from your body, and you will fall into the water and be devoured. There were thing here before us, Jayne Bauling’s ‘Severed’ tells us, things we cannot account for. Things that will remain long after we – individually and as a species – are gone. They predate us, and they pre-date us, and they will be our post-.

There might be a time when the only ethical thing left for us is, as a character in Vianne Venter’s ‘Acid Test’ seems to think, a radical green accelerationism. Bring it all down, and let the world return.

(Delightfully, and perhaps instructively, Ndola is a twin town of Aldershot.)

Your description of the monster misdescribes the monster and destroys it.
In Joe Vaz’s ‘After the Rain’, strange and deadly things emerge from the abandoned mines swiss-cheesing the ground beneath Johannesburg. Even the bugs in the mountainous mine dumps fear these creatures. They prey on township folk, like some contorted repressed returning, a reminder of the suffering and immiseration and state violence under Apartheid and since.

Mistaken for ‘long skinny men with dog-heads’, the creatures turn out to be dogs, ‘standing on long hind legs, balancing [their] weight on the tips of [their] paws’, a correction that is also mistake. Whatever they are, they are that, not something or some other thing that they resemble. Not the isomorphic protagonist, who got out as a nine-year-old back in 1986 and only now, thirty years later, returns.

But this is what happens when the monster ventures from its lair into normalcy.

Its angularity, its awkward and improbable being, its ferocity and anguish, get domesticated. Like a dog.

‘History is what hurts’, Jameson tells us, failing to add: ‘That, and monsters’.
They hurt and they hurt. They are in pain, and they bring pain.

Like the witch in Sarah Lotz’s ‘That Woman’ and the women who support and protect her because justice is not going to come from patriarchy or the state. Like the daughter of the old witch in Joan De La Haye’s ‘Impundulu’, who unleashes her just rage and anguish – and the eponymous lightning bird – not only on the man who raped her and made her miscarry but on all those who would take his side. On what we, often glibly, call rape culture and patriarchy.

As if naming them contains them.

 The other has just as much right (and wrong) as the self.
Which doesn’t mean it’s easy or comfortable, as Su Opperman’s grotesque comic ‘The Death of One’ shows us.

Although maybe I’m reading it wrong. Maybe what I should be paying attention to is the page split into four panels, across the top two of which the man says ‘the death of one is…’ and across the bottom pair of which the sawtooth-beaked, bird-headed man-thing with too many eyes concludes ‘…is life to the other’. This is not some Lion King circle-of-life pablum, but a call for the dissolution of the monadic subject (and his comedy sidekick, the rational economic actor). An invocation of full communism.

‘If you see a monster at your doorstep’, Grandma says in Nnedi Okorafor’s ‘On the Road’, ‘the wise thing to do is shut the door’. Grandma is wrong.
The other is not really other, Lacan says, it just reflects and projects the ego. The Other is radical alterity. It cannot be identified with. It cannot be assimilated. It is unique and beyond representation and it is also the system of representation – the symbolic – that mediates the relationship between the radical, unassimilable alterity of subjects. The Other we first encounter is – quelle surprise! – the mother, defined of course by her phallic lack, which in turn figures the signifier that is always missing.

‘There is an abyss between this world and the next,’ the narrator of Toby Bennett’s ‘Sacrament of Tears’ writes, ‘I fear my nephew looked deep and could not make sense of what he saw’.

But perhaps the abyss is not a vagina, and the vagina is not an abyss.

Perhaps difference is not a lack at all.

Perhaps difference is an opening-out, a flowering into the realm of monsters. Which is where the monadic phallic white subject already, unbeknown to himself, lives. Along with us all.

Perhaps, like the queer, monster-embracing protagonist of Nerine Dorman’s ‘A Whisper in the Reeds’, we should not focus so much on the monster entering our world but instead on going away from here with the monster. On becoming monster.

Because difference is an opening-out onto that place beyond, which is called hope or utopia.

Not just full communism.

Full-on communism.

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The City in Fiction and Film, week 23: Zadie Smith’s NW (2011), part two (pp. 173–333)

13537891 week 22

Last week, we used the first half of the novel to explore the ways in which Smith constructs London as a matter-of-fact multicultural city. Deep in the fabric of the place – and of the novel – is difference, constantly shifting and reorganising, but never monadic or monolithic. This week we focused on the ways in which class is just as deeply embedded.

The first part of the novel is told in third-person from the viewpoint of second-generation Irish immigrant, Leah. The opening scene of the novel establishes that, living in a basement flat four doors down from the council estate where she was raised, she has not quite escaped her working class roots, despite the middle class accoutrements of her daily life. She was the first of her family to go to university – and she chose to study philosophy among the privileged children of the wealthy bourgeoisie at Edinburgh University. She recalls the mortification of being a working class autodidact who spoke in class about ‘a two-syllable packing company Socrates, a three-syllable cleaning fluid Antigone’ (33); later, her friend Keisha (who will change her name to Natalie), recalls she and her boyfriend similarly ‘sound[ing] the T and the S’ in Albert Camus (193). I suspect if you’ve not gone through this you don’t get how agonising and confidence-destroying it can be – as a working class kid you often feel you do not really belong at university, and moments like this reinforce that anxiety. It is a measure of how material wealth is connected to cultural capital, and of what it is like to grow up in a culturally impoverished environment (and it is why the current government’s war on libraries and on state education is so iniquitous – and with so many politicians coming from money, they just fundamentally do not get it).

The different treatment different classes receive is also flagged up when, in part two (which is told from the viewpoint of Felix, who will become the victim of knife crime), when Felix’s dad’s neighbour Phil notes:

‘They always say “youth” don’t they? …Never the boys from the posh bit up by the park, they’re just boys, but our lot are “youths”, our working class lads are youths, bloody terrible isn’t it?’ (112).

This is reiterated in the first chapter of the novel’s third part, told from the viewpoint of Natalie (formerly known as Keisha). Remembering how she and Leah met thanks to a near-drowning in the outdoor pool in the park:

‘They had a guard up on the hill, in Hampstead, for them. Nothing for us.’ (173)

And again, when Nat reflects on the different educational experience of wealthy fellow student and later husband Francesco De Angelis, who looks ‘like he was born on a yacht somewhere in the Caribbean and raised by Ralph Lauren’ (204):

Some schools you ‘attended’. Brayton [Leah and Nat’s school] you ‘went’ to. (206)

When Leah and Nat were growing up, neither of their mothers (Pauline and Marcia, respectively)

was in any sense a member of the bourgeoise but neither did they consider themselves solidly of the working class either. (177)

This sense of not quite belonging, of being trapped between identities, marks the lives of both women and their daughters in multiple ways (Smith explores this in terms of being between classes rather than between races/ethnicities/cultures – which is is common in British Asian cinema). While Leah and Michel do reach the middle class, there is an element of precarity to their lives; in contrast, Nat and Frank are comfortably well off, thanks to his family’s wealth and her career as a barrister, even more so after she moves from legal aid work defending working class people to practicing corporate law. Leah is acutely aware of the growing class gulf between them, which is highlighted every time she and Michel are invited to a dinner party, ‘where she and Michel … provide something like local colour’ (85). And Natalie and Frank often take over telling Leah and Michel’s stories:

Natalie’s version of Leah and Michel’s anecdote is over. The conversational baton passes to others, who tell their anecdotes with more panache, linking them to matters of wider culture, debates in the newspapers. (86)

At one point, Frank jokingly asks Leah, ‘Why is it that everyone from your school is a criminal crackhead?’, to which she replies, ‘Why’s everyone from yours a Tory minister?’ (61).

Another comparison:

Leah passes the old estate every day on the walk to the corner shop. She can see it from her backyard. Nat lives just far enough away to avoid it. (63)

Or take this scene, which captures so many of the insecurities and anxieties of not having come from money and now having a little:

On the way back from the chain supermarket where they shop, though it closed down the local grocer and pays slave wages, with new bags though they should take old bags, leaving with broccoli from Kenya and tomatoes from Chile and unfair coffee and sugary crap and the wrong newspaper.
They are not good people. They do not even have the integrity to be the sort of people who don’t worry about being good people. They worry all the time. They are stuck in the middle again. They buy always Pinot Grigio or Chardonnay because these are the only words they know that relate to wine. They are attending a dinner party and for this you need to bring a bottle of wine. This much they have learnt. They do not purchase ethical things because they can’t afford them, Michel claims, and Leah says, no, it’s because you can’t be bothered. Privately she thinks: you want to be rich like them but you can’t be bother with their morals, whereas I am more interested in their morals than their money, and this thought, this opposition, makes her feel good. Marriage as the art of invidious comparison. (80)

Here, as elsewhere in the novel, an extra layer is added by the narrator’s voice (which is of course not to be confused with Smith herself), which implies an omniscient perspective but which also sounds like someone from a different class background – the final sentence does not sound a lot like Leah. The narrative voice, sometimes right up close to the character, sometimes quite distant, here is rather slippery: is Leah ironically observing her own foibles, or is the narrator passing judgment on her?

Michel starts trading penny shares online,

dreaming of a windfall that will transport them to another urban suburb more to his taste, which means no more African, less Caribbean. (90)

This is part of the much larger logic of class mobility and of house prices in the city. When Nat and Rodney, her boyfriend from church whose mum was a dinner lady and dad a bus driver, are studying for their A-levels, the narrator tells us of their ambitions:

They were going to be lawyers, the first people in either of their families to become professionals. They thought life was a problem that could be solved by means of professionalization. (202)

Around about that time, Nat recalls Leah’s mum’s enthusiasm about moving house:

‘It’s practically Maida Vale’ (197).

And when it comes to house prices:

The mistake was to think that the money precisely signified – or was equivalent to – a particular arrangement of bricks and mortar. The money was not for those pokey terraced houses with their short back gardens. The money was for the distance the house put between you and Caldwell [the estate they came from]. (252)

Leah’s moment of crisis is finally brought about after she and Michel allow Nat and Frank to persuade them not to attend the Notting Hill carnival, but to instead go to a party in a flat overlooking the carnival. They watch rather than participate; the mass of people to which they used to belong are reduced to a spectacle for the wealthy, to their entertainment value, and are kept as far away as possible.

In a similar vein, Nat is agonisingly aware of how she is changing into someone else. When Frank blames Nat’s mum, brother and sister for their own poverty – Jayden could get a job, Cheryl could stop having children by various fathers – she stands up for them:

‘They don’t refuse to help me, Frank – they can’t!’ cried Natalie Blake, and launched into a passionate defence of her family, despite the fact she was not speaking to any of them. (228)

She realises, too, that she has turned Rodney, ‘in many ways himself a miracle of self-invention’ like her, ‘into a comic anecdote to be told at dinner parties’ (194).

Later, in a supermarket queue behind a working class mother trying desperately to find the money she needs to pay for her groceries, and having to ask the cashier to take back this and that item, Nat realises that she

had completely forgotten what it was like to be poor. It was a language she’d stopped being able to speak, or even to understand. (276)

To wrap up our discussion of class in the novel we took a look at a passage from part two of the novel, chapters 125–8 (pp.242–5), in which Nat joins her first law firm and runs into her cousin Tonya, to think about class signification, difference and experience.

A key part of the novel’s consideration of multiculturalism and of class is its emphasis on the flux and constant becoming of urban identity – that it is not monolithic and fixed, but like the city itself fluid and always in transformation, constantly emerging as something new. Keisha – who in her teens has not yet changed her name to Natalie – first realises how unfixed identity is, how prone to change, when Leah starts hanging out in Camden and developing a taste for

Baudelaire or Bukowksi or Nick Drake or Sonic Youth or Joy Division or boys who looked like girls or vice versa or Anne Rice or William Burroughs or Kafka’s Metamorphosis or CND or Glastonbury or the Situationists or Breathless or Samuel Beckett or Andy Warhol or a million other Camden things, and when Keisha brought a wondrous Monie Love 7-inch to play on Leah’s hi-fi there was something awful in the way Leah blushed and conceded it was probably OK to dance to. They had only Prince left, and he was wearing thin. (185)

This sudden change, and the accompanying dislocation of their friendship, leaves Keisha

wondering whether she herself had any personality at all or was in truth only the accumulation and reflection of all the things she had read in books and seen on television. (185)

 Similarly, while transcribing a song she and her friend Layla are writing for their church group, Keisha looks in the mirror across the room:

Two admirable young sisters, their hair still plaited by their mothers, sat on the edge of a makeshift stage, one singing and the other transforming music into its shadow, musical notation. That’s you. That’s her. She is real. You are a forgery. Look closer. Look away. She is consistent. You are making it up as you go along. She must never know. (188–9)

As she and Leah drift further apart – as she loses the condition at school of ‘being Leah Hanwell’s friend’ and is ‘now relegated to the conceptual realm of “those church kids”’ (191) – Keisha plumbs the depths of adolescent angst:

She considered herself peculiarly afflicted, and it is not an exaggeration to say that she struggled to think of anyone besides perhaps James Baldwin and Jesus who had experienced the profound isolation and loneliness she now knew to be the one and only true reality of this world. (192)

At the end of a trip down from Edinburgh to visit Keisha – now called Nat – at Bristol university, Leah tells Nat ‘You’re the only person I can be all of myself with’, which makes her cry:

not really at the sentiment but rather out of a fearful knowledge that if reversed the statement would be rendered practically meaningless, Ms Blake having no self to be, not with Leah, or anyone. (208)

Soon, Nat breaks up with Rodney and becomes ‘crazy busy with self-invention’ (209). By the time she graduates and begins training to become a barrister, she has chased after experience, fashioned a self. But she never seems to realise that Leah – and everyone else – is caught up in self-creation, bound in various ways to their roots but also always headed into becoming. This is suggested when Frank, with whom Nat did not become involved at university, suddenly turns up, also training to be a barrister:

And there was indeed something intimate about the way they spoke to each other, heads close, looking out across the room. Natalie fell so easily into the role, she had to remind herself that this intimacy had not existed before tonight. It was being manufactured at this present moment, along with its history. (216)

Some years later, Nat is still not sure she is, and in rapid succession completely fails to recognise herself in three descriptions of her given by her brother Jayden (264), Leah (268) and Layla (277–8). This leads her to muse, in the single paragraph chapter 170 called In drag:

Daughter drag. Sister drag. Mother drag. Wife drag. Court drag. Rich drag. Poor drag. British drag. Jamaican drag. Each required a different wardrobe. But when considering these various attitudes she struggled to think what would be the most authentic, or perhaps the least inauthentic. (278)

Identity, it seems, is a collection of roles she plays, all partly pre-scripted by the expectations of others (or her anticipation of others’ expectations) and the signifiers of costume, demeanour, language and so on deemed appropriate. Perhaps she has being reading Judith Butler. She certainly has a well-developed sense of the quotidian performativity required by the complex urban environments she inhabits and through which she moves. Maybe that early intuition about being an accumulation and reflection of the socio-cultural realm is not so far wrong; maybe all subjectivity is is the chaotic non-linear determinism of constant becoming.

In the closing pages of the novel, as Nat roams north-west London in the company of Nathan Bogle – he was at school with her and Leah, he had an actual try-out for professional football team, but has long since drifted into a life of petty crime – it eventually dawns on her that he was involved in the fatal stabbing of Felix (with which the first and second sections of the novel ended). Twice Nathan comments on some of the bad things he does to get by, adding ‘you know that ain’t the real me. You know me from back in the day’ (305) and ‘You remember me. You know who I am’ (316). He clings to the image of a whole self, a true self, that once existed and somewhere beneath the mess of his life still exists. He is stuck in that combination of false memory and denial.

Frustratingly, this encounter leads her to tell the depressed Leah, who is wondering why she has the life she has, why she was one of the ones who succeeded in getting away from her working class roots, that

we worked harder. … We were smarter and we knew we didn’t want to end up begging on other people’s doorsteps. We wanted to get out. People like Bogle – they didn’t want it enough. I’m sorry if you find that answer ugly, Lee, but it’s the truth. This is one of the things that you learn in the courtroom: people generally get what they deserve. (332)

It is a horrible, arrogant and self-deceiving speech, and it is hard to tell how much Nat believes it. It is certainly a change of tune. And by the novel’s own logic, this hardening of attitude (which echoes the opinions of some of the more privileged characters, with whom she has hitherto disagreed) is a deadly mistake. Just as Nathan was stuck in the past, so this speech’s performance of certainty seeks to draw a line under her past, to deny it, and thus to fix a monolithic identity in place.

Moments later Nat phones the police to inform on Nathan.

The final sentence of the novel – which might be addressed to the police, or to Leah about something else entirely – fortunately returns some uncertainty and ambiguity to her:

‘I got something to tell you,’ said Keisha Blake, disguising her voice with her voice. (333)

 

This was the final week of the module in terms of teaching – week 24, which I will not blog about, is devoted to final assignment preparation. All being well, I will next year blog about my new second-year module, Genre and the Fantastic, which I am starting to plan in the gaps between wrapping up this year’s teaching and marking.

Recommended critical reading
Banting, Keith, Will Kymlicka, Richard Johnston and Stuart Soroka ‘Do Multiculturalism Policies Erode the Welfare State: An Empirical Analysis’. Multiculturalism and the Welfare State. Ed. Banting and Kymlicka. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. 49–91.
Duff, Kim. Contemporary British Literature and Urban Space: After Thatcher. Basingstoke: 2014. 87-122.
Groes, Sebastian. The Making of London: London in Contemporary Literature. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2011. 191–251.
James, David. “Wounded Realism.” Contemporary Literature 54.1 (2013): 204–14.
Knepper, Wendy. “Revisionary Modernism and Postmillenial Experimentation in Zadie Smith’s NW.” Reading Zadie Smith: The First Decade and Beyond. Ed. Philip Tew. London: Bloomsbury, 2013. 111–126.
Malik, Sarita. “The Dark Side of Hybridity: Contemporary Black and Asian British Cinema.” in Daniela Berghahn and Claudia Sternberg, eds, European Cinema in Motion: Migrant Diasporic Film in Contemporaary Europe. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2010. 132–151.
Pope, Ged. Reading London’s Suburbs: From Charles Dickens to Zadie Smith. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. Especially 161–202.
Tew, Philip. The Contemporary British Novel. 2nd ed. London: Continuum, 2007.
–. Zadie Smith. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
Wells, Lynn. “The Right to a Secret: Zadie Smith’s NW.” Reading Zadie Smith: The First Decade and Beyond. Ed. Philip Tew. London: Bloomsbury, 2013. 97–110.

Recommended reading
For other contemporary British Afrodiasporic fiction, try Two Fingers and James T. Kirk’s Junglist (1995), Andrea Levy’s Never Far from Nowhere (1996), Courttia Newland’s The Scholar: A West-Side Story (1997), Alex Wheatle’s Brixton Rock (1999), Courttia Newland and Kedija Sesay’s IC3: The Penguin Book of New Black Writing in Britain (2000), Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (2000), Leila Aboulela’s Minaret (2005), Brian Chikwava’s Harare North (2010) or Tendai Huchu’s The Maestro, The Magistrate and the Mathematician (2014).

Recommended viewing
Afrodiasporic British cinema includes Pressure (Ové 1976), Black Joy (Simmons 1977), Dread Beat an’ Blood (Rosso 1979), Babylon (Rosso 1981), Burning An Illusion (Shabazz 1981), The Passion of Remembrance (Blackwood and Julien 1986), Playing Away (Ové 1987), Welcome II the Terrordome (Onwwurah 1995), Dog Eat Dog (Shoaibi 2001), A Way of Life (Asante 2004), Bullet Boy (Dibb 2004), Kidulthood (Huda 2006), Life & Lyrics (Laxton 2006), Rollin’ with the Nines (Gilbey 2006), Adulthood (Clarke 2008), Shame (McQueen 2011) and My Brother the Devil (El Hosaini 2012).

The City in Fiction and Film, week 22: Zadie Smith’s NW, part one (pp. 1–169)

week 21

Over the last few weeks, we’ve been bandying about the word ‘multiculturalism’ in a pretty loose sense, as if everyone knows and agrees on its meaning. The HarperCollins Dictionary of Sociology (1991) seems pretty clear in its definition:

the acknowledgment and promotion of cultural pluralism … multiculturalism celebrates and seeks to promote cultural variety, for example minority languages. At the same time it focuses on the unequal relationship of minority to mainstream cultures.

But like all dictionary definitions, it obscures the extent to which such terms are politically alive, wrestled over in and by our culture, meaning different things depending on who is saying them, where, when and for what purpose. It is a contested term, with multiple competing meanings, and is often used without any attempt at precision – especially in popular political discourse.

The term dates back to 1960s and 1970s, when – as part of the complex politics of white settler nations within the British Commonwealth – Australia changed its immigration laws to allow entry to previously excluded Asian migrants, and when Canada was not only changing its immigration laws but also wrestling with the relationship between an Anglophone majority and a Francophone minority, primarily Québécois, and with growing First Nations activism. Generally speaking, new migrants were encouraged not to assimilate (as in America’s melting pot, in which everyone is equal so long as they adopt white middle class values) but to integrate (as in Canada’s alternative metaphor of a mosaic of peoples); that is, they were enabled to retain their ‘home’ or ‘natal’ culture, and the development of ethnic community infrastructures was encouraged as a mechanism to foster integration.

In the UK, the then Home Secretary Roy Jenkins, pursuing a similar policy, said in 1966:

Integration is perhaps a rather loose word. I do not regard it as meaning the loss, by immigrants, of their own national characteristics and culture. I do not think we need in this country a ‘melting pot’, which will turn everyone out into a common mould, as one of a series of carbon copies of someone’s misplaced vision of the stereotyped Englishman … I define integration, therefore, not as a flattening process of uniformity, but cultural diversity, coupled with equality of opportunity in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance … If we are to maintain any sort of world reputation for civilised living and social cohesion, we must get far nearer to its achievement than is the case today.

Of course, while this massive conceptual, political and cultural shift was occurring, already discredited ideas of race as a meaningful biological concept still circulated, so it was often still the case that migrant populations were regarded as racially different. For all that ‘multiculturalism’ emphasises culture, this deep-rooted shadow meaning persists (when we hear politicians and others attacking multiculturalism, they are as often as not talking about race).

While there are all kinds of brilliant positive things about integration in contrast to assimilation, it has also been the subject of political manipulation. An approach that encouraged cultural diversity has been blamed for ‘failures of assimilation’ (which were of course never the goal, so they cannot honestly be regarded as failures). Furthermore, it is often retconned into a racist narrative that says multiculturalism was introduced because it is somehow impossible for different races to assimilate. Hostility around perceived racial difference has thus been blamed on the racially other for their failure to be assimilated rather than on the host nation’s inability and frequent unwillingness to integrate properly – which would include the education of the host population around such issues. And while there are often instances of migrant communities being unwilling to relinquish their cultural distinctiveness, that is exactly the point of multiculturalism – it is not a glitch, it’s a feature.

It is also important to remember that multiculturalism is not just about immigrant populations. Yes, it is about immigrant minorities, such as South Asians and Afro-Caribbeans in the UK. But it is also about substate national minorities, such as the Québécois in Canada, and about similar populations more geographically dispersed within a nation, such as African American population. And it is also about indigenous peoples: First Nations in Canada, Native American Indians in the US, Aboriginals in Australia, Maori in New Zealand, and so on. Each of these groups, and each of these kinds of groups, have their own distinctive histories and their own particular needs to be met within a multicultural state.

Keith Banting, Will Kymlicka, Richard Johnston and Stuart Soroka, in a piece of research examining whether multicultural policies have a negative effect on the welfare state across a number of European and other nations, identify eight key kinds of policy that multiculturalism implies:

  • constitutional, legislative or parliamentary affirmation of multiculturalism at the central and/or regional and municipal levels
  • adoption of multiculturalism in the school curriculum
  • inclusion of ethnic minority representation and sensitivity in the mandate of public media or media licensing
  • exemptions from dress codes (e.g., Sikhs wearing turbans rather than crash helmets or school caps), from laws banning Sunday trading, etc.
  • allowing dual citizenship
  • funding ethnic group organisations to support cultural activities
  • funding bilingual education and mother-tongue instruction
  • affirmative action for disadvantaged groups

They then examined their sample nations in terms of their commitment to such policies:

  • Strong adopters (6-8 policies): Australia, Canada
  • Modest adopters (3-5.5 policies): Belgium, Netherlands, Sweden, UK, USA
  • Weak adopters (under 3 policies): Austria, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland

So next time you hear a British politician banging on about ‘the failure of the multicultural experiment’, remember the UK falls into the ‘didn’t actually try all that hard’ group.

NW (2012) is Zadie Smith’s fourth novel, following White Teeth (2000), The Autograph Man (2002) and On Beauty (2005). She was born in Brent in London in 1975, to a Jamaican mother and Anglo father; and she wrote much of her first novel in the final year of her English Literature degree at King’s College, Cambridge (at Cambridge, she failed an audition to be in the Footlights, rejected it is said by Mitchell and Webb). Her novels are, among other things, concerned with the matter-of-fact, normalising representation of the multicultural city, especially London. Her work is also defined by a kind of stylistic restlessness, as if each novel is as concerned with finding the voice in which to write as it is with the characters or narrative. This is emphasised in NW by the variety of approaches she brings to third-person narration in each of the novel’s sections – and even sentence-by-sentence as she manipulates the proximity of the narrator’s voice to the viewpoint character’s perspective.

We began by reading the opening chapter together, seeing how Smith establishes setting, mood, atmosphere, character and theme. It begins with a too-hot spring day, the sun altering how the periphery of a Willesden council estate looks from just a few doors down, where Leah, born on the estate, reclines in a hammock in the shared garden behind her basement flat. Significantly, she has moved on in to private accommodation, just not very far. A caricatured sunburned and overweight-in-a-crop-top working class girl smokes a fag on a balcony in the nearby block of flats, talking too loud on her mobile phone. Leah is a second generation Irish immigrant, pale-skinned and red-headed. The gap between her and her loud neighbour troubles her: physical proximity to her past assuages some of the guilt she feels about her class mobility, even though has not ascended the hierarchy that far. She has also just found out she is pregnant by her Nigerian-French husband Michel; he wants kids, she does not.

We also read chapters 9 and 10 of the first section together. The former is a googlemaps-style set of directions to walk from an address in NW8 to another in NW6; the latter is a dérive, a trek along the same route described as a succession of sense impressions – smells, glimpsed commodities, adverts, leaflets, music from passing cars – which capture the experience of moving from bustling, working class streets to the wealthier and more barricaded areas around Regent’s Park and St John’s Wood:

The Arabs, the Israelis, the Russian, the Americans: here united by the furnished penthouse, the private clinic. If we pay enough, if we squint, Kilburn need not exist. (40)

This pair of chapters captures something essential to the novel’s project – the filling in and fleshing out of the city not as an abstract space but as a place (or a nested and interlocking array of places), rich in history and memory, both public and private. The city no more precedes these places than a map precedes the territory.

Branching out from these chapters, we were able to discuss the ways in which Smith captures the ethnic diversity of London, from ‘a life-size porcelain tiger’ to the many various ways in which muslim women observe (or not) strictures about headdress, which bear ‘no relation to the debates in the papers, in Parliament’ (39). It is there in the built environment, too, with ‘the Islamic Centre of England opposite the Queen’s Arms’ (40).

We will return to the novel next week, to consider the ways in which it talks about social and economic class, and suggests that urban identity is not a fixed thing but something that, for all its roots, nonetheless constantly emerges in the moment.

Attack_The_Block_2We also took a look at Attack the Block (Cornish 2011), a British banlieue movie that probably owes more to District 13 (Morel 2004) than La Haine (Kassovitz 1995), and a lot to US hip-hop/ghetto cinema, but which nonetheless has something of Passport to Pimlico (Cornelius 1949) about it. It recalls our work on Boyz N the Hood (Singleton 1991) in its focus on how the protagonists are trapped within their South London estate (filmed on the Heygate estate before it was demolished, complete with multiple scandals) but its greater significance in relation to NW is the way in which it fills in and fleshes out. It starts with a young white woman, Sam (Jodie Whitaker), walking home at night, and being mugged at knifepoint by a gang of youths in hoodies. The gang is multiethnic – and the film never highlights nor makes an issue of this – though no doubt David Starkey would say something racist about them all being ‘culturally black’. At the same time as it invests in a romantic narrative of gang loyalty and redemptive male violence, the film does also work to undermine these ideas. Perhaps the key moment comes at the end, when the Jodie stands by her erstwhile mugger, Moses (John Boyega), when the police arrest him – he is, after all they have gone though, her neighbour. Part of her community. It is all a little too glib and easy, but it hits an affective chord.

We also could not quite figure out what it means that this multicultural gang – a stand-in for a multicultural community – defend the block against violent, featureless black male monsters from outer space. A little too much like Zulu (Endfield 1964) or Black Hawk Down (Scott 2001) in its use of this fundamentally racist colonial adventure narrative set-up.

week 23

Recommended critical reading
Banting, Keith, Will Kymlicka, Richard Johnston and Stuart Soroka ‘Do Multiculturalism Policies Erode the Welfare State: An Empirical Analysis’. Multiculturalism and the Welfare State. Ed. Banting and Kymlicka. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. 49–91.
Duff, Kim. Contemporary British Literature and Urban Space: After Thatcher. Basingstoke: 2014. 87-122.
Groes, Sebastian. The Making of London: London in Contemporary Literature. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2011. 191–251
James, David. “Wounded Realism.” Contemporary Literature 54.1 (2013): 204–14.
Knepper, Wendy. “Revisionary Modernism and Postmillenial Experimentation in Zadie Smith’s NW.” Reading Zadie Smith: The First Decade and Beyond. Ed. Philip Tew. London: Bloomsbury, 2013. 111–126.
Malik, Sarita. “The Dark Side of Hybridity: Contemporary Black and Asian British Cinema.” in Daniela Berghahn and Claudia Sternberg, eds, European Cinema in Motion: Migrant Diasporic Film in Contemporaary Europe. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2010. 132–151.
Pope, Ged. Reading London’s Suburbs: From Charles Dickens to Zadie Smith. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. Especially 161–202.
Tew, Philip. The Contemporary British Novel. 2nd ed. London: Continuum, 2007.
–. Zadie Smith. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
Wells, Lynn. “The Right to a Secret: Zadie Smith’s NW.” Reading Zadie Smith: The First Decade and Beyond. Ed. Philip Tew. London: Bloomsbury, 2013. 97–110.

Recommended reading
For other contemporary British Afrodiasporic fiction, try Two Fingers and James T. Kirk’s Junglist (1995), Andrea Levy’s Never Far from Nowhere (1996), Courttia Newland’s The Scholar: A West-Side Story (1997), Alex Wheatle’s Brixton Rock (1999), Courttia Newland and Kedija Sesay’s IC3: The Penguin Book of New Black Writing in Britain (2000), Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (2000), Leila Aboulela’s Minaret (2005), Brian Chikwava’s Harare North (2010) or Tendai Huchu’s The Maestro, The Magistrate and the Mathematician (2014).

Recommended viewing
Afrodiasporic British cinema includes Pressure (Ové 1976), Black Joy (Simmons 1977), Dread Beat an’ Blood (Rosso 1979), Babylon (Rosso 1981), Burning An Illusion (Shabazz 1981), The Passion of Remembrance (Blackwood and Julien 1986), Playing Away (Ové 1987), Welcome II the Terrordome (Onwwurah 1995), Dog Eat Dog (Shoaibi 2001), A Way of Life (Asante 2004), Bullet Boy (Dibb 2004), Kidulthood (Huda 2006), Life & Lyrics (Laxton 2006), Rollin’ with the Nines (Gilbey 2006), Adulthood (Clarke 2008), Shame (McQueen 2011) and My Brother the Devil (El Hosaini 2012).

African Science Fiction 101: update 2

The months since my last update have been crazily busy with other things, so there has been little time for research and even less time for actually reading any of the goodies I’ve uncovered. Most of which are annoyingly inconvenient sizes and shapes to lug around with me over my Xmas perambulations. But I thought I would post another list before Xmas (and before that teetering pile of books in the corner falls over on top of me).

First up, I should mention the hugely embarrassing omission of Amos Tutuola from the article that started all this (and my indebtedness to Paul March-Russell for drawing it to my attention   in such a generous way). Truth is, I have never read anything by him, though The Palm-Wine Drinkard (1952), My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1954) and Feather Woman of the Jungle (1962) may well 51ZoowIE8gL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_be squeezed into the suitcase. As might D.O. Fagunwa’s Forest of a Thousand Daemons: A Hunter’s Saga (1939), translated by Wole Soyinka(!) – the first Yoruba-language novel, said to be an influence on Tutuola, not least in its fantastical landscape in which the supernatural is as real and present as the natural world.

While we’re in the margins of what might be considered sf, I have had a load of things recommended to me that might be more appropriately labelled ‘weird’ or ‘slipstream’:

  • Tawfiq Al-Hakim, The People of the Cave (1933) – a play based on the seven sleepers of Ephesus, who sleep their way into the future; their story is told in the eighteenth surah of the Qu’ran
  • Bertène Juminer, Bozambo’s Revenge (1968)41yjzEc0m9L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ – satirical alternate history in which Africans have colonised a swampy Europe full of idle, childish, pallid natives
  • Gamal al-Ghitani, The Zafarini Files (1976) – in a crowded corner of Sadat-era Cairo, a sheikh uses magic to take away men’s sexual potency
  • Olympe Bhêly-Quénum, Snares without End (1978) – there is an essay about him at Weird Fiction Review
  • Ivan Vladislavić, The Folly (1993), which seems to have a nice salvage vibe to it, if not exactly salvagepunk
  • Calixthe Beyala, How to Cook Your Husband the African Way (2002) – begins with a black woman explaining how she turned white, but not in quite the way I initially thought it was going to go
  • José Eduardo Agualusa, The Book of Chameleons (2004) – a murder mystery involving a trader in memories and identity creation
  • Ondjaki, Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret (2008) – a wonderful poetic novel, one of the best things I’ve read this year; there is something fantastical about it, but there is not any fantasy in it…
  • Franklin Rosemont and Robin DG Kelley, eds, Black, Brown and Beige: Surrealist Writings from Africa and the Diaspora (2009) – does what it says on the tin
  • Fiston Mwanza Mujilla, Tram 83 (2014)Tram-83-310px-square – according to reviewers it is ‘Blade Runner in Africa with a John Coltrane soundtrack’ that ‘transfigures harsh reality with a bounding, inventive, bebop-style prose’ and depicts ‘a world so anarchic it would leave even Ted Cruz begging for more government’
  • A. Igoni Barrett, Blackass (2015) – Furi Wakiboko wakes up one morning to discover he has turned white; well, all but one part of him has…

The more obviously genre works that have come my way include:

  • Charlie Human, Apocalypse Now Now (2013) – an urban fantasy thriller in Cape Town’s supernatural underworld
  • Masha du Toit, Crooks & Straights (2014)51Jp-br-R1L._SX310_BO1,204,203,200_ – YA urban fantasy in which Cape Town provides a home for magical refugees
  • Sarah Lotz, The Three (2014) – global thriller with horror/fantasy edge
  • SL Grey, Under Ground (2015) – while a lethal virus sweeps the world, the folks hiding out in a plush subterranean survival bunker find they have brought horror with them
  • Rob Boffard, Tracer (2015) – set on the falling-apart space station housing the last of humanity above a devastated Earth
  • Ivor W. Hartmann, ed., AfroSF volume 2 (2015)afrosf2 – contains five novellas by Tade Thompson and Nick Wood, Mame Bougouma Diene, Dilman Dila, Andrew Dakalira, and Efe Tokunbo Okogu
  • Jo Thomas and Margrét Helgadóttir, eds, African Monsters (2015) – contains fifteen stories and a comic strip by, among others, Dilman Dila, Nerine Dorman, Tendai Huchu, Sarah Lotz, Nnedi Okorafor, Tade Thompson, Nick Wood

(Should also mention Tade Thompson’s debut novel, Making Wolf (2015), although it is a crime thriller, not sf/f.)

One of the things I am interested in starting to trace is the role of speculation and futurity in African political discourse, which has recently led me to:

  • JE Casely Hayford (aka Ekra-Agiman), Ethiopia Unbound: Studies in Race Emancipation (1911) – a novel which apparently includes a vision of a future pan-Africa
  • Camara Laye, A Dream of Africa (1966) – a novel which apparently does the same

Taking of awkwardly shaped and sized books, as I was some time back, one final goody I stumbled across, which provides some useful context for thinking about African sf/f is Readings in African Popular Literature (2002), edited by Stephanie Newell. It reprints some critical articles, but also some fiction and comics and various pages from Drum magazine.