Nobody can be unaware of the events which have unfurled across the world after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. While politicians in other countries have often dismissed protests on their own doorsteps as a response to events in America and unrelated to problems of their own, the scale and breadth of the reaction has shown that George Floyd has sparked off a wave of realisation of the numerous ways, in many societies, that ethnic minorities are disadvantaged through policing, the judicial system, educational and employment opportunities. The artistic and cultural world is part of this too, and this article highlights the concerns in the publishing industry in this country.
In the UK English GCSE, a consideration of the work of writers from a wide range of cultures used to be a compulsory element, until Michael Gove removed it in his reforms when he was Minister for Education, placing a stronger emphasis on English, pre-20th century literature. One of the attractions of IGCSE is cultural breadth, and specifications include the work of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Benjamin Zephaniah and the journalist George Alagiah, for example. At A Level, immigrant literature and the literature of colonialism and its aftermath appear on specifications. The selected writers include Sam Selvon, himself a Windrush immigrant.
So here are some suggestions for your own explorations, starting with a BBC drama about the Windrush scandal, where Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’ policies led to many people, who had been legitimately in the UK since childhood, losing their jobs, being arrested and deported: Sitting in Limbo.
Andrea Levy, a descendant of the Windrush generation, published her novel Small Island in 2004. It juggles chronology and narrative perspectives to create a warm, balanced, often comic but also deeply moving account of the Second World War, the arrival of the Windrush immigrants, their expectations and the realities they faced.
Luckily the National Theatre’s entertaining staging of the novel began its week’s streaming last night, and you can check it out here.
Adichie, a Nigerian novelist, spoke thoughtfully about the dangers of preconceptions of different races, cultures and countries in a TED talk which has become quite famous and is well worth a watch.
Her best novel, in my opinion, is Half of a Yellow Sun, an account of the Nigerian civil war; it is a narrative tour de force.
You could also have a look at Bernardine Evaristo, who shared the Booker Prize with Margaret Atwood last year, with her novel Girl, Woman, Other. Evaristo first really made her mark with The Emperor’s Babe, a verse novel published in 2001.
I could go on, but I’ll give the last word to Benjamin Zephaniah, whose writing and ideas go well beyond ‘Talking Turkeys’. Here he is interviewed recently on Radio 4’s Front Row.