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Part I - Identities

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 November 2023

Ato Quayson
Stanford University, California
Ankhi Mukherjee
University of Oxford


Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2023
Creative Commons
Creative Common License - CCCreative Common License - BYCreative Common License - NC
This content is Open Access and distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence CC-BY-NC 4.0

Chapter 1 Decolonizing the University

Paul Giles

The relationship between colonization and academia is a vast topic going back many centuries, but the more particular issue of decolonizing the university was brought into sharp focus in 2015 by protests against statues of Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town and then at Oxford the following year. South African scholar Grant Parker commented on the apparent anomaly of how the “offending Rhodes statue at UCT famously received little notice for … many years” (257), with these demonstrations taking place “nearly a generation after the establishment of democracy in the country” (256), long after the statue of Hendrick Verwoerd, architect of apartheid, had been removed from the South African parliament in 1994. But the more recent literal as well as metaphorical deconstructions of statues in many countries were spectacular visual events given heightened public impact by social media networks that did not exist twenty years earlier, and in South Africa this movement also became conflated with issues of student access through a “Fees Must Fall” movement. Within “the Oxford context,” according to organizers of “Rhodes Must Fall,” their “three principal tenets for decolonisation” were “decolonising the iconography, curriculum and racial representation at the university” (Reference Nkopo and ChantilukeNkopo and Chantiluke 137), with the movement being “intersectional” in identifying places where racial injustice overlapped with, and was exacerbated by, similar forms of inequity in class or gender.

Decolonization itself was defined by historian John Springhall as “the surrender of external political sovereignty, largely Western European, over colonized non-European peoples, plus the emergence of independent territories where once the West had ruled, or the transfer of power from empire to nation-state” (2). Geoffrey Barraclough, formerly Chichele Professor of Modern History at Oxford, observed that between 1945 and 1960 forty countries with a total population of 800 million, a quarter of the entire world’s population, achieved political independence by rejecting colonial authority, and as far back as 1964 he argued that too many twentieth-century historians had focused their attention on European wars, even though when this history “comes to be written in a longer perspective, there is little doubt that no single theme will prove to be of greater importance than the revolt against the west” (154). It is hardly surprising that such a massive historical shift has carried reverberations in the academic world, nor that much influential decolonial theory and activism have been generated from outside more traditional universities in Europe and North America, often from the Reference SouthernSouthern Hemisphere.

Walter D. Mignolo, for example, though now based at Duke University, is a native of Argentina who has collaborated extensively with Peruvian sociologist Anibal Quijano and Colombian anthropologist Arturo Reference EscobarEscobar to develop models of collective well-being that represent an emphatic break with assumptions of liberal society and a shift to embedding Indigenous and environmental perspectives within political systems. Mignolo’s strategy of “de-linking” is directed “to de-naturalize concepts and conceptual fields that totalize A reality” (Reference Mignolo“Delinking” 459), thus dissolving purportedly universal systems into more “pluri-versal” variants (Reference Mignolo“Delinking” 499). In Latin America this outlook was interwoven in complex ways with liberation theology and given legal expression in 2008 through the valorization of nature as a subject with rights within the constitution of Ecuador (Reference EscobarEscobar 396), and then by the ratification of Bolivia in 2009 under the leadership of Evo Morales as a “Plurinational State,” one explicitly recognizing Indigenous communities (Reference CheyfitzCheyfitz 143). Working from Oceania, Epeli Hau‘ofa emphasized oral fiction, local knowledge, and an experiential proximity that effectively deconstructed what Mignolo called the epistemic “hubris” associated with a mythical “zeropoint” of colonial knowledge (Reference Smith and Tuck“Introduction” 5), thereby underlining how every angle of vision necessarily derives from somewhere specific. In Africa, struggles over apartheid and Rhodes were foreshadowed by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s 1972 essay “On the Abolition of the English Department,” which discussed a proposal at the University of Nairobi to replace English with a Department of African Literature and Languages, and by his 1986 book Decolonizing the Mind, which analyzed more comprehensively the intellectual relation between African and European languages.

It is important to recognize the subtlety of Ngũgĩ’s argument in the latter work. He does not suggest English or European culture is simply redundant, but that there should be a realignment of epistemological assumptions in line with geographical reorientations. “What was interesting,” noted Ngũgĩ, “was that … all sides were agreed on the need to include African, European and other literatures. But what would be the centre? And what would be the periphery, so to speak? How would the centre relate to the periphery?” (Reference Thiong’o89–90). As with Edward Said, whose critical work similarly invokes heterodox geographies to interrogate Western culture’s hegemonic assumptions, Ngũgĩ’s thinking was significantly shaped by Joseph Conrad, whom Simon Gikandi described as having a “substantive” influence on the Kenyan scholar’s work (Reference Gikandi106).1 Though one of the enduring benefits of decolonizing the university world has been to integrate Africa, Latin America, and Oceania more fully into discursive intellectual frameworks, this has involved more a repositioning than a discarding of Western cultural traditions. Nevertheless, there are important shifts of emphasis associated with this decolonial impetus. Mignolo defined it “as a particular kind of critical theory and the de-colonial option as a specific orientation of doing” (Reference Smith and Tuck“Introduction” 1), and these differentiate it in his eyes from the postcolonial theory that became very popular in English departments from the 1990s onward, which tended to leave familiar hierarchies in place. In a harsh critique of Homi Bhabha’s work, Priyamvada Gopal suggested the readings of “psychic ambivalence” (15) Bhabha attributes to postcolonial texts modulate too comfortably into the kinds of equivocation associated with “Whig imperial history’s own rendering of imperialism as a self-correcting system that arrives at emancipation or decolonization without regard to the resistance of its subjects” (Reference Gopal19). For Gopal, the forms of structural hybridity foregrounded in the work of Bhabha or Gayatri Spivak were readily absorbed into a liberal system of academia where it became easy to carry on business as usual.

As with Ngũgĩ’s analysis of how African literature relates to European, these are complicated (and interesting) debates, and it would seem more useful for any English department to provide the space for such ideas to be interrogated, rather than trying to impose any curriculum predicated upon the impossibility of trying to settle all such questions in advance. One of the historical advantages of Cambridge University, where Gopal is now based, is its relatively decentered structure, organized around some thirty colleges, which makes it difficult for centralized administrative authority of any kind to enjoy unobstructed sway. Salman Rushdie complained in 1983 about Cambridge’s institutional use of “Commonwealth Literature,” which he described as a “strange term” that “places Eng. Lit. at the centre and the rest of the world at the periphery,” a notion he described as “unhelpful and even a little distasteful” Reference Rushdie(“Commonwealth” 61). However, that did not prevent him from pursuing his interest in Islamic culture during his History degree at Cambridge, with Rushdie recalling it was while studying for a special paper on the rise of Islam that he “came across the story of the so-called ‘satanic verses’ or temptation of the Prophet Muhammad” (Reference Rushdie“From an Address” 249), a story he subsequently embellished in his controversial novel The Satanic Verses (1988).

Following a similarly contrapuntal pattern, Caryl Phillips, who was born on the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia and grew up in Leeds before reading English at Oxford in the late 1970s, chose in his final year an optional paper on American Literature, since this gave him the opportunity to study for the first time Black writers: Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin. Though Britain at this time “was being torn apart by ‘race riots,’” Phillips later recalled, “there was no discourse about race in British society and certainly no black writers” on the mainstream Oxford English curriculum (Reference 40Phillips“Marvin Gaye” 35). Under the aegis of Warton Professor John Bayley and his wife Iris Murdoch, the Oxford English Faculty at that time promoted a soft Anglican ideology based around the belief that idiosyncratic “human” qualities necessarily trumped any theory of social circulation. There are, of course, respectable intellectual rationales for this approach, involving a privileging of biography and what Murdoch, a former Oxford philosophy tutor turned novelist, called in her polemical rejection of existential abstraction a stance “against dryness.” But this meant that undergraduates studying American literature tended to be uncomfortable discussing questions of race, with a special paper on William Faulkner when I taught there in the first decade of the twenty-first century attracting essays that made him appear to resemble Virginia Woolf, as the students focused more confidently on stylistic streams of consciousness than on representations of racial tension in Faulkner’s fiction. The same thing was true at Cambridge, where I worked between 1999 and 2002 after the early death of Tony Tanner. Tanner’s inventive and courageous work had helped to establish American Literature as a viable option on the highly traditional Cambridge English syllabus, but his own emphasis on the legacy of transcendentalism, and his critical understanding of American writing as an exploration of new worlds of “wonder,” had led to a synchronic understanding of the field as synonymous with a mythic quest for freedom. Many students in the third-year American Literature seminar did not know or care about the dates of the US Civil War, nor did they see distinctions between antebellum and postbellum periods as relevant to their textual close readings.

None of these pedagogical issues was insuperable, and part of the pleasure in university teaching involves encouraging students to reconsider familiar authors from a more informed perspective. Moreover, the polycentricity of both Oxford and Cambridge helped ensure these intellectual agendas were driven largely by productive academic debates and disagreements, rather than, as at some other places I have worked, by deans or vice chancellors who fancy themselves as charismatic leaders and wish to impose “a future vision” of their own on the university. Phillips’s own novels involve, in his words, “a radical rethinking of what constitutes British history” (Reference BraggBragg), while avoiding “the restrictive noose of race” (Reference Smith and Tuck“Introduction” 131), which as a category Phillips takes to be inherently reductive, and in this sense his fiction might be said to have internalized in paradoxical ways aspects of the Oxford idiom, even in resisting its ideological narrowness.

Mark Twain, who in Following the Equator (1897) directly addressed Cecil Rhodes’s legacy in South Africa, also retained a guarded attitude toward questions of race and colonization, one that combined a sense of outrage at Rhodes’s depredations with a darker fatalism shaped by Twain’s sense of Social Darwinism as an inevitable force. Twain’s presentation of Rhodes is consequently bifurcated, in line with the structural twinning that runs through much of his writing: “I know quite well that whether Mr. Rhodes is the lofty and worshipful patriot and statesman that multitudes believe him to be, or Satan come again, as the rest of the world account him, he is still the most imposing figure in the British empire outside of England” (Reference Twain708). Even critics who highlight Twain’s radical aspects acknowledge these contradictions: “I confess,” remarked John Carlos Rowe of Following the Equator, “that my representation of Twain’s anti-imperialist critique of the British in India does not account for Twain’s vigorous defense of the military conduct of the British in suppressing the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857” (Reference Rowe132). Such ambivalence does not, of course, invalidate Twain’s engagement with colonial cultures but makes it more thought-provoking. It does no favor to either literary studies or decolonial praxis to circumscribe such writers within restrictive interpre-tative grooves, and Kerry Driscoll’s work on Twain and “Indigenous Peoples” perhaps misjudges the tone of Following the Equator in its claim Twain here “rages against the unjust dispossession of Australian Aboriginals and the genocidal efforts of colonial settlers who left arsenic-laced flour in the bush for them to eat” (Reference Driscoll11). It is true that foregrounding Twain’s darker facets can generate more pointed discussions than were customary during the heyday of Huckleberry Finn’s “hypercanonization,” when the novel was celebrated unproblematically as a fictional epitome of the free American spirit, and Driscoll illuminatingly expands scholarship on Twain and race to encompass questions of dispossession and Indigeneity as well as “African Americans and slavery” (4), with the latter having now become more familiar in critical discussions of the author.2 There has of course been much valuable work since the 1970s to recover American writers who had been excluded from traditional canonical Reference Hallformations, but one of the most productive aspects of such inclusiveness has been a shift in the analytical relation between Black authors and established White figures such as Twain, Poe, or Henry James, a reorientation outlined most influentially by Toni Morrison in her Harvard lectures published as Playing in the Dark (1992). But Morrison’s treatment of these issues is characteristically oblique, indicating how racist assumptions in these classic texts often circulate in underhand ways, and Twain’s black comedy tends similarly to avoid narrative closure or polemic.3

The point here is simply that racial representations in literature are necessarily multifaceted and variegated. One of the qualities distinguishing the humanities from the social sciences, according to Helen Small, is their greater “tolerance for ambiguity” (Reference Small50), with Roland Barthes declaring “nuance” to be synonymous with “literature” itself (Reference Barthes11). Nevertheless, one clear benefit of decolonization for literary studies has been to demystify myths about the “universality” of American or European value systems and to interrogate subject positions whose implicit hierarchies have remained unacknowledged. James D. Le Sueur remarked on how one enduring legacy of the French–Algerian War (1954–62) was the way it generated a “fundamental reconsideration” (167) of French culture’s place in the world, just as Dipesh Chakrabarty has argued for “provincializing Europe” more generally. In her account of the development of English departments in Australian universities, Leigh Dale described how old-style professors in the earlier part of the twentieth century tended to promote Anglophile ideas, with Donald Horne recalling how E. R. Holme, McCaughey Chair of Early English Literature at the University of Sydney until 1941, would use Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Primer “as a text for a series of sermons on the virtues of Empire” (67), with any interest in Australian literature being counted until the 1970s as, in Dale’s words, “equivalent to an intellectual disability” (Reference Dale143). But the advent of postcolonial theory in the last decades of the twentieth century comprehensively changed these power dynamics, and conceptual intersections between different parts of the world are now an established feature of literature courses everywhere. Oxford at the beginning of the twenty-first century changed the title of its various undergraduate period papers from “English Literature” to “Literature in English,” an apparently minor emendation that seemed to pass unnoticed by many college tutors, but one that resolved the previous ambiguity about whether the adjective “English” referred to language or nation and so allowed the possibility of studying, say, Les Murray or Adrienne Rich alongside Ted Hughes. Cambridge has retained the traditional nomenclature of “English Literature” but specifies in its outline that “the course embraces all literature written in the English language, which means that you can study American and post-colonial literatures alongside British literatures throughout.” This did not necessarily mean that Oxbridge tutors who had spent half their lives teaching Dickens and George Eliot jumped at the opportunity to teach Indian or Australian literature instead, but it did allow for the possibility for the curriculum to evolve as new academic interests and priorities emerge. Decolonizing any university in substantive terms is always a long-term process rather than one accomplished by apocalyptic cleansing.

Recognition of the wide variety of colonial contexts also allows greater flexibility in understanding how a program of decolonization might be addressed. Australian anthropologist Nicholas Thomas, who now works at Cambridge, emphasizes the manifold dissimilarities of colonial situations, rejecting a “unitary and essentialist” version of “colonial discourse” (3) as “global ideology” (60) in favor of its “historicization” (19), where particular situations in, say, the Solomon Islands or Māori New Zealand are scrutinized for their “conflicted character” (3). This also leads Thomas to be skeptical about the claims of Australian Indigenous culture to any “primordial” purity (Reference Thomas28), an idea he suggests has too often been appropriated for strategic or sentimental purposes. Concomitantly, the notion that decolonial politics should turn exclusively on a restitution of stolen lands might be said misleadingly to conflate pragmatism with philosophy. In complaining that “decolonization is not a metaphor,” American Indigenous scholars Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Tang argued that “when metaphor invades decolonization, it kills the very possibility of decolonization; it recenters Whiteness, it resettles theory, it extends innocence to the settler, it entertains a settler future” (Reference Tuck and Wayne Yang3). Such an emphasis does carry significant purchase in the Indian domain of land restitution that Tuck and Wang prioritize, but it is important to recognize that while land might constitute a form of “knowledge” (Reference Tuck and Wayne Yang14) for some peoples, it certainly did not for those enslaved on American plantations, where they were not able to own land either legally or economically, nor for Jewish people who were banned from holding land in medieval Europe. To inflate a “spiritual” relation to land into an “ontology,” as does Indigenous Australian academic and activist Aileen Moreton-Robinson (Reference Moreton-Robinson15), thus risks aggrandizing the legitimate praxis of specific claims grounded on the issue of territorial “sovereignty” (Reference Moreton-Robinson125) into an unsustainable universalist design.

Such political tensions have been particularly prevalent within Australian academia, where attempts to introduce Indigenous perspectives have often led to controversies around the definition of the subject and the question of who is empowered to articulate the field. At the University of Sydney, for example, an “Aborginal Education Centre” was established in 1989 and renamed in 1992 as the “Koori Centre,” providing a focus for teaching and research led by Indigenous scholars as well as support for students; but this Centre was dissolved in 2012 in an attempt to embed Indigenous knowledge more fully within regular university curricula, with individual academics being redistributed across different departments. The problem here arises not so much from these organizational structures, for which advantages and disadvantages might be adduced on both sides: a separate Koori Centre always risked being intellectually isolationist, but attempts to integrate Indigenous knowledge across the curriculum risk such specificity becoming vitiated, particularly in an era of financial stringency and dwindling appointments. But the more fundamental difficulty turns on a potential displacement of complicated intellectual questions to rigid administrative blueprints within which such theoretical issues might find themselves prematurely foreclosed. There have, for instance, been many debates around the work of Alexis Wright, an astonishing novelist from the Waanyi people, but the reception of her fiction has often become locked within institutional tugs of war linked to proprietorial concerns, with some identifying her work specifically with Indigenous politics and language, while others have sought to associate it with global environmentalism and magical realism. Some Indigenous scholars regard the “mainstreaming” of their field as inherently hazardous, on the grounds that any “reconciliation” fundamentally involves “rescuing settler normalcy” and “ensuring a settler future” (Reference Smith, Tuck and YangSmith, Tuck, and Yang 15); others emphasize “the importance of relationality,” with Sandra Styres suggesting that “decolonizing pedagogies and practices open up spaces … where students can question their own positionalities, prior knowledge, biases, and taken-for-granted assumptions” (Reference Styres33). These arguments will inevitably continue, but it is crucial they are allowed a viable academic framework within which to evolve over time, perhaps in ways that are currently difficult to predict.

One indisputable contribution of Australian cultural theory to literary studies over the past decade has been to make debates around settler-colonial paradigms more prominent. The work of Patrick Wolfe, Lorenzo Veracini, and others, which had heretofore been regarded as relevant largely within an Australian or Pacific Island context, is now deployed to elucidate settler Reference Hallformations in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa as well as the United States, with Phillip Round in a 2019 essay on nineteenth-century US literature describing settler colonialism as “the foundational principle of all American sovereignty discourse” (Reference Round, Marrs and Hager62). Tamara S. Wagner similarly wrote in 2015 of how “in the last few years, new interest in settler colonialism has helped us see what postcolonial criticism has traditionally left out” (Reference Wagner224), while Tracey Banivanua Mar observed a year later that although the Pacific had generally been seen as “an afterthought in most overviews of decolonization,” this has changed “productively” in recent times (Reference Mar8). However, such perspectival expansiveness has introduced concurrent anxieties about a loss of traction for Australian Literature as a discrete field, along with concern that what Russell McDougall called “transnational reading practices” might lead to “deteriorating interest in Australian Literature” and its supersession by a generic model of “world literary space” (Reference McDougall10), in which settler colonialism manifests itself as a more amorphous phenomenon. There are no easy answers to these questions, but they are complex equations that literary studies should always be thinking through: relations between hegemony and decolonization, the promise but also potentially illusory capacity of regional autonomy, the perennial liability to cultural appropriation through economic and political incorporation.


The third of the “principal tenets” for Rhodes Must Fall, “racial representation at the university” (Reference Nkopo and ChantilukeNkopo and Chantiluke 137), is in many ways more difficult to address than decolonizing its iconography or curriculum, since this necessarily involves confronting the kind of systematic racism that has long been endemic to British as well as most Western societies. The statistics in themselves are shocking: in 2016, 27 percent of pupils who attended state schools in Britain were Black, but there were only a handful of Black undergraduates at Oxford, with Patricia Daley, a contributor to Rhodes Must Fall, being the first Black academic to be appointed as a university lecturer at Oxford as late as 1991. The reasons for such anomalies are complex, involving what can be seen in retrospect as excessive trust during the second half of the twentieth century in the meritocratic model promoted by UK government policies after 1945, where applicants for admission were judged solely on their academic performance according to supposedly objective criteria.4 British universities were slower than those in the United States to calibrate for different social and educational contexts, and apart from the overall inequity of this process it also involved a significant loss of scholarly capacity, as if professional football clubs were to base recruitment only on the number of goals students had scored for their high-school team rather than their overall playing potential.

Equal access to higher education is crucial to the health as well as integrity of any academic system, but often resistance to change was linked to forms of unconscious bias that the Black Lives Matter movement has effectively highlighted. As Chakrabarty noted, while “racism” as a theoretical concept may no longer be viable, subtler forms of racial profiling and discrimination have nevertheless proliferated (Crises Reference Chakrabarty142).5 Sara Ahmed has written about how ubiquitous university offices of “Institutional Diversity” remain blind to what she called “kinship logic: a way of ‘being related’ and ‘staying related,’ a way of keeping certain bodies in place. Institutional whiteness,” Ahmed concluded, “is about the reproduction of likeness” (Reference Ahmed38). Again, this emphasis on “kinship” is by no means a recent or exclusively British phenomenon, nor one arising solely from the idiosyncrasies of the English class system; in 1666 at the University of Basle, for instance, all but one of the professors were related to each other, while in the 1790s at Edinburgh six chairs in the medical faculty changed hands, with five of them going to sons of former professors (Reference VandermeerskVandermeersk 228). Less blatantly, however, Oxbridge often accepted students with whom it felt “comfortable” through the narrowness of its own perspective about what constituted academic value. Since this is an issue embedded historically within the social structures of British life, it is not readily susceptible to amelioration simply through educational reform. In his chapter on university life in English Traits (1856), Ralph Waldo Emerson described Oxford and Cambridge as “finishing schools for the upper classes, and not for the poor,” with England regarding “the flower of its national life” as “a well-educated gentleman” (Reference Emerson and Wilson117). It was this emphasis on individual character and manners as the epitome of cultural value that contributed for so long to social and racial circumscriptions of the student population.

Such pressures toward conformity can also be attributed in part to the notion, common since medieval times, that the academic world should properly be subservient to the jurisdiction of a secular state. Conflicts between the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire were famously replicated in England in 1535, when Henry VIII sent royal visitors to scrutinize the Oxford and Cambridge curricula, with a view to realigning it in accordance with new state priorities by eliminating the teaching of systematic theology and abolishing degrees in canon law (Reference LoganLogan). In this light, more recent political moves to make universities serve what Bill Readings called “the force of market capitalism” (Reference Readings38) have a venerable antecedence. Back in the twelfth century, as R. W. Reference SouthernSouthern observed, the great majority of students went on to become “men of affairs” (Reference Southern199), and for most students, then as now, university was more important as an opportunity for enhanced social and economic status rather than intellectual inquiry. This, of course, is one reason the middle classes have been so desperate to protect university space in order to benefit their own children’s future, with class mobility in academic environments being no less a source of potential friction than racial equity, and Matt Brim describing “top schools” in the United States as “unambiguous drivers of class stratification” (Reference Brim86).

Since national economies started to become increasingly dependent on inReference Hallformation technology in the 1990s, there has been exponential pressure from national bodies for universities to produce graduates adept at gathering and organizing data, with all developed nations rapidly expanding their student populations in the interests of supporting their economies. In 2013 there were some 160 million students enrolled globally (Reference Schreuder and SchreuderSchreuder xxxiv), and this has led to even more pressure for higher education to serve the interests of the state. This in turn has produced a more dirigiste version of academia as comprising “managed professionals” (Reference Slaughter and RhoadesSlaughter and Rhoades 77) employed to execute research agendas often dictated by a university’s upper administration, in line with government funding priorities. Symbiotically intertwined with these systematic pressures toward conformity has been the fear among some observers “in every generation,” as Collini commented, that the university world “was all going to the dogs” (Reference Collini33). John Henry Newman in 1852 declared: “A University, I should lay down, by its very name professes to teach universal knowledge” (Reference Newman and Ker33); but this etymological link between universities and universalism has always been fractious and contested, particularly given the perennially tense relations between academic and political worlds. In the Middle Ages, universitas was a term derived from Roman law that described a union of people bound together by a common occupation, an arrangement that gave it immunity from local systems of justice under the merchant code; but in 1205 Pope Innocent III cannily expanded this corporate meaning to embrace his vision of the universitas as engaged in universal learning, addressing a papal letter to “universis magistris et scholaribus Parisiensis,” to all masters and students in Paris (Reference PedersenPedersen 101, 151). Nevertheless, medieval universities always had to fight to retain some measure of freedom, with their leaders often attempting to play off civic and religious authorities against each other.

In this sense, Immanuel Wallerstein’s view that the model of the medieval university “essentially disappeared with the onset of the modern world-system” (Reference Wallerstein59) seems doubtful, since universities have always been forced to negotiate uneasily with political and economic pressures. Reference SouthernSouthern commented on how the growth of scholasticism in the twelfth century heralded a “striving towards universality,” with lecturers subsuming all “local peculiarities” of time and place within universal systems of knowledge (Reference Southern211), but competing claims of local and global have fluctuated over time and place. Many intellectual developments occurred when scholars working in universities challenged social or academic conventions: Peter Abelard’s dialectical theology, for example, was seen as heretical in the twelfth century, even though two of his students eventually went on to become pope, while in the 1790s Immanuel Kant was reproved by a Prussian superintendent for his dissemination of unorthodox ideas (Reference RueggRuegg 7). There has thus been a long and distinguished tradition in universities of dodging the bullets, of exploiting university infrastructures and resources to evade institutional authorities. Such transgressive practices are common across all disciplines, from Galileo’s work on astronomy at the University of Padua between 1592 and 1610, to John Locke in the seventeenth century revising the basis of empirical philosophy, to Adrienne Rich in the twentieth century recasting formal poetic traditions in feminist, emancipationist styles, a project she undertook while working in a challenging urban environment at the City University of New York. In disagreeing with Eric Ashby’s claim that the scientific revolution in the seventeenth century gained its momentum from outside academia, Roy Porter pointed to how universities “provided the livings” and “posts” (Reference Porter545) for most of the radical figures who advanced principles of physiology, medicine, and mathematical logic during this era: Carl Linnaeus, William Harvey, Isaac Newton.

From a historical perspective, then, Claire Gallien’s assertion that “decolonial studies are not soluble in the neo-liberal university” (Reference Gallien9) would appear dubious. It is not clear why a “neo-liberal” academic framework, for all its obvious reifications and follies, should be more of an impediment to innovative work than the scholastic environment of the Middle Ages, or the gentlemanly codes of conduct that predominated in the universities of eighteenth-century Germany, when professors and students liked to don the clothes of aristocrats and knights to display their social standing (Reference SimoneSimone 316). As Porter remarked, despite all the pressures toward standardization, universities have proved over time to be “immensely durable” sites for the pursuit and dissemination of new knowledge (Reference Porter560). One of the reasons Peter Lombard’s Four Books of Sentences was so popular among students in twelfth-century Paris was because it was a sourcebook of excerpts assembled “so that the enquirer in future will not need to turn over an immense quantity of books, since he will find here offered to him without his labour, briefly collected together, what he needs” (Reference SouthernSouthern 198), and a similarly instrumental view of higher education is readily apparent in academic marketplaces today. Nevertheless, universities still offer scope for productive work, even if indirectly rather than programmatically, since in academia chains of cause and effect, investment and outcome, tend to be linked together more obliquely than administrators and politicians would prefer.

In humanities, Stuart Hall, who played a major role in incorporating racial questions into university curricula during the final decades of the twentieth century, moved as a Rhodes Scholar in 1951 from Jamaica to Oxford, where he stayed until 1957. Hall later found continuities between his understanding of the “always hybrid” nature of “cultural identity” (“Reference HallFormation” 204), linked to a “diasporic way of seeing the world,” and the “diasporic imagination” of Henry James (“Reference HallAt Home” 273), on whom he started but never completed a doctoral thesis at Oxford. “I wanted my PhD to be on American literature,” said Hall, “because it’s somewhat tangential. I’m always circling from the outside. I’m interested in the complexities of the marginal position on the center, which, I suppose, is my experience of Oxford … I thought, I’m a Rhodes Scholar – the whole point of Rhodes was to send these potential troublemakers to the center, to learn.” Given Hall’s recollection of how his pioneering Cultural Studies department at Birmingham in the 1960s was accomplished by “stealth” and “double-dealing,” it is not difficult to see the circuitous influence of this Oxford experience on the development of Cultural Studies in the UK, especially as Hall described the field as initially posing “some key questions about the Americanization of British culture and where English culture was going after the War” (Reference PhillipsPhillips, “Stuart Hall”). While decolonization has been associated more explicitly with Cultural Studies, it has also been linked to the English literary curriculum in roundabout ways. Hall’s contributions, like those of Rushdie and Phillips, indicate how even the most conservative academic frameworks can engender heterodox styles of progressive thought that cannot be reduced simply to the expectations of funders or the often narcissistic visions of founders. Rhodes would never have approved of Hall, but Hall was nevertheless a product of the Rhodes legacy.

The opening up of the world to what Cameroonian scholar Achille Mbembe called “new cognitive assemblages” (Reference Mbembe244) – the pluriverse, the posthuman, the Anthropocene – consequently allows for “new, hybrid thought styles” (243), where traditional horizons can be reconceptualized. Mbembe, who has influenced the work of Judith Butler, described Africa as “a planetary laboratory at a time when history itself is being recast as an integrated history of the Earth system” (252), and the same thing is true of Oceania and Latin America, whose new visibility within the world of global scholarship effectively interrogates more calcified Western models.6 Mignolo wrote of how “decolonial liberation implies epistemic disobedience” (“Reference Mignolo and Walsh.On Decoloniality” 114), implying again crossovers between decolonization and transgression. Similarly, it would be possible to recognize analogies between Hall’s realignment of the epistemological foundation of White British culture by recalibrating it in relation to Black migration and an equivalent displacement of Euroamerican centers of gravity through such a “planetary laboratory.”

Exactly how such global reorientations might manifest themselves will always be open to debate, as the many critical disagreements today about how to define “World Literature” amply demonstrate. Nevertheless, we should not underestimate the long-term social “impact” of the humanities. It is unlikely, for example, that Barack Obama would have been elected president of the United States in 2004 had it not been for the scholarship from the 1970s onward that worked successfully to elucidate blind spots in the American literary canon, sparking revisionist reassessments in the popular fiction of Toni Morrison and many others of how racialist assumptions had become entrenched within society. The recent exponential growth in college student numbers, rising in the United States in 2018 to around 69 percent of high-school graduates, means that university curricula now exert more influence throughout society than during the twentieth century, and the decolonization of the English literary curriculum has played an integral part in this process.

Writing from within Oxford, Patricia Daley argued: “Decolonisation is not about replacing Western epistemologies with non-Western ones, nor is it about prioritising one racialised group over another. It is to create a more open ‘critical cosmopolitan pluriversalism’ – where instead of Eurocentric thought being seen as universal, there is a recognition and acceptance of multiple ways of interpreting and understanding the world” (Reference Daley85). Such “pluriversalism” is categorically different from traditional versions of liberal pluralism, since its focus is not just on authorizing difference per se, but on how geopolitical and environmental variables frame the “pursuit of restitutive justice” that Robbie Shilliam regards as crucial to “the imperial world map” (Reference Shilliam19). While there are different ways of approaching questions of decolonization, they all involve, as Shilliam suggested, a “cultivation of different spatialities and relationalities” (Reference Shilliam22), a decentering of racial hierarchies that runs in parallel to a decentering of geographical hierarchies. To decolonize the university is to restore a sense of its etymological universalism and resist acquiescing in local conventions, whether political, social, or racial; yet this should involve what Wallerstein glossed as a “universal universalism,” rather than a “partial and distorted universalism” (Reference Wallersteinxiv) extrapolated merely from Western centers of power. While such a planetary universalism might be an evasive and infinitely receding concept, it is nevertheless one to which the idea of a university should always aspire.

Chapter 2 Decolonizing the English Department in Ireland

Joe Cleary

The university English department in Ireland has a long history, but of that history we have no history. This might appear paradoxical because for much of its existence the English department in Ireland as elsewhere conceived of itself in broadly historicist terms – offering curricula that generally ran from Anglo-Saxon and medieval to modern British literature – and cultivated critical models that can be described as historicist and contextualist in character (Reference NorthNorth). Nevertheless, while the history of education in Ireland is a well-established field, there are no histories of the formation of English departments in Ireland, of the curricula they offered, the agendas they hoped to serve, or of their reconfigurations in the changing world of the university more generally. In this sense, English departments in Ireland can be said to have little substantial historical memory and without such memory attempts to “decolonize” departments run the risk of being uninformed and unsystematic.

That the modern education system in Ireland generally was colonial and imperial in intent and function seems indisputable. In the period after the Tudor, Stuart, and Cromwellian plantations, the English state dismantled the remaining structures of Gaelic society in Ireland and enacted penal laws designed to consolidate the new Protestant Ascendancy, to limit access to land and the higher professions to Catholics, and to anglicize Irish subjects and culture. In 1695, “An act to restrain foreign education” was legislated to limit contact between Irish Catholics and possible continental allies, to which was added a domestic provision forbidding any “person whatsoever of the popish religion to publicly teach school or instruct youth in learning” (Reference McManusMcManus 15). These laws were designed to discourage Catholicism and to encourage Catholics to have their children educated in the available Protestant schools to become loyal subjects of the United Kingdom.

The disenfranchised Catholic population did not readily comply. Instead, Catholic schoolmasters continued to teach surreptitiously in provisional schools often conducted out of doors and in the shelter of hedges, this giving rise to a “hedge school” system that continued until the end of the penal laws in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Historians of these schools conceive of them as “a kind of guerrilla war in education,” in which teachers were obliged constantly to evade law officers and were often prosecuted, especially in times of social unrest. In her account of the hedge schools, Antonia McManus notes, “a school master who contravened penal laws was liable to three months’ imprisonment and a fine of twenty pounds. He could be banished to the Barbados, and if he returned to Ireland, the death penalty awaited him. A ten pound award was offered for his arrest and a reward of ten pounds for information against anyone harbouring him” (Reference McManus17). Despite such strictures, the hedge schools managed to provide education for students intended for the priesthood, for foreign military service, and for those going into business and trading enterprises domestically and overseas. In an increasingly British-dominated world, English was required for social advancement, and the hedge schools provided English instruction. As instruments of both anticolonial resistance and adaption, they probably prefigured in function the more state-sponsored forms of institutional education later developed in the nineteenth century.

Despite the turmoil created by the plantations and the insurrections protesting the new colonial system, the Irish population had grown to 8 million by the 1840s, at a time when that of the rest of the United Kingdom was approximately 18.5 million. By this time, the poorer Irish had become for many in England a byword for papism and poverty, squalor and sedition. Many had also become a ragged and unskilled migratory labor force pouring into England’s and Scotland’s industrial cities. The United Irish Rebellion of 1798, Daniel O’Connell’s mass campaigns for Catholic Emancipation (achieved in 1828) and then for repeal of the Anglo-Irish Union of 1800, and the prominence of several Irish figures in the Chartist movement in England demonstrated that the Irish could be a formidable force for political unrest and rebellion in the United Kingdom as a whole.

Commentators as diverse as Thomas Carlyle and Marx and Engels observed as much. Mixing Biblical-style fulmination with social analysis, Carlyle’s Chartism (1840) deals at length with Irish migration to England and its consequences. Referring mockingly to the Irish migrants as “Sanspotatoes,” an obvious reference to the Parisian “sansculottes,” Carlyle complains that:

Crowds of miserable Irish darken all our towns. The wild Milesian features, looking false ingenuity, restlessness, unreason, misery and mockery, salute you on all highways and by-ways. … He is the sorest evil this country has to strive with. In his rags and laughing savagery, he is there to undertake all work that can be done by mere strength of hand and back; for wages that will purchase him potatoes. … The Saxon man if he cannot work on these terms, finds no work. He too may be ignorant; but he has not sunk from decent manhood to squalid apehood; he cannot continue there. American forests lie untilled across the ocean; the uncivilized Irishman, not by his strength but by the opposite of strength, drives out the Saxon native, takes possession in his room.

Here, colonial clichés and stereotypes agglutinate. They include: the dark simian qualities; the sly civility that combines “misery and mockery” or “laughing savagery”; the degenerate Celtic weakness that is nevertheless stealthy enough to expropriate the more manly Saxon and compel him to emigrate to “untilled” American forests while the slovenly migrant usurps “his room” at home.

Yet though he fulminates, Carlyle does not wholly blame the Irish for their own condition:

And yet these poor Celtiberian Irish brothers, what can they help it? They cannot stay at home and starve. It is just and natural that they come hither as a curse to us. Alas, for them too it is not a luxury. It is not a straight or joyful way of avenging their sore wrongs this; but a most sad circuitous one. Yet a way it is, and an effectual way. The time has come when the Irish population must be improved a little, or else exterminated. Plausible management, adapted to this hollow outcry or that will no longer do: it must be management, grounded on sincerity and fact, to which the truth of things will respond – by an actual beginning of improvement to these wretched brother-men. In a state of perpetual ultra-savage famine, they cannot continue. For that the Saxon British will ever submit to sink along with them to such a state, we assume as impossible.

(Reference Carlyle29Reference Carlyle30; italics in the original)

It is the Kurtz-like reference that what cannot be “improved” must be “exterminated” that catches the eye here. When the Great Famine came later in the same decade, the Irish really did become “Sanspotatoes,” 2 million of them dying of hunger, a further 2 million emigrating. Following that catastrophe, the more militant Irish, at home and in the United States, would also think “extermination” and attribute the British government’s weak and often contemptuous response to Irish starvation and disease as state-sanctioned genocide.

Nevertheless, both in the passage cited here, and in the treatise as a whole, Carlyle’s stress falls on “improvement,” not “extermination.” In place of an ad hoc “plausible management” of what Carlyle represents as a chronic domestic British crisis, what Chartism calls for is the “beginning of an improvement” that will confront what will soon be called “the Irish problem” more systematically. When he is done railing on the inadequacies of English parliamentary reform and bourgeois complacency, what Carlyle finally advocates in Chartism’s closing chapter as the solution to the social unrest unleashed by the industrial revolution comes down to two Es, or really three Es: Education and Emigration, Empire serving as the bridge that connects the first two Es. Education is advocated for the English workers and slatternly Irish, “who speak a partially intelligible dialect of English” (Reference Carlyle28), so both constituencies may be disciplined out of their unruliness and into proper respect for order and authority. Emigration is offered as a response to Malthusian doomsayers; it is a valve that will allow this “swelling, simmering, never-resting Europe of ours” that stands “on the verge of an expansion without parallel” to make verdant the whole earth (Reference Carlyle112).

“Universal Education is the first great thing we mean, general Emigration is the second” (Reference CarlyleCarlyle 98). Education and emigration, in many cases education for emigration, would remain closely imbricated in Irish life throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but the approaches Carlyle called for in Chartism were in many respects already underway before 1840. The Act of Union passed in 1800 abolished Dublin’s Ascendancy parliament and afterward Westminster directly governed Ireland. The shocks caused by the 1798 Rebellion and O’Connell’s mass campaigns together with rapid transformations brought about by the industrial revolution in England forced a dramatic expansion in British state power and social controls, economic laissez faire notwithstanding. Experiments that were more difficult to implement in the United Kingdom proper were attempted in colonial Ireland, and by the mid-nineteenth century the smaller island possessed a complex of centrally administered social institutions. These included an extensive network of police stations and gaols, workhouses, hospitals, asylums, and, not least, a national education system.

In 1831, the establishment of the Commission of National Education steered Irish education away from Protestant conversion agendas and led to the formation of a state-centralized national education system. Though the Irish clergy of all denominations were mostly initially hostile to a centralized education system, they were nevertheless encouraged to participate as patrons of the new school system. Thus, as Kevin Lougheed comments, “the national school system quickly established itself in Ireland, such that it was one of the dominant suppliers of education in the country by the onset of the Famine in 1845, with close to 3500 national schools educating over 430,000 children” (Reference Lougheed3). By comparison, Lougheed adds, “the state emerged into the English education field much later than in Ireland, only becoming directly involved in education provision from 1870” (Reference Lougheed4). Though the two countries were officially parts of the same state, then, national education took different courses in Ireland and England. In Ireland, the state developed a centralized system earlier and attempted to attach the various clerical denominations to the state by way of school patronage; in England, state involvement was more gradual and there was ultimately less emphasis on religious involvement (Reference LougheedLougheed 5).

Educational innovations in Ireland had consequences that reached well beyond Ireland. In the White settler colonies especially, colonial authorities looked to the imperial center for models as to how to develop their own fledgling educational systems, and Ireland often served as a template. Canada and Australia also had settler populations divided by religion and nationality, and the Irish national school system appeared to offer a model by which to overcome such division and to create self-disciplined subjects loyal to the British Empire. Missions by the various churches to tend to the emigrant communities in the settler colonies brought Irish experience and knowledge to these regions, and this in turn further encouraged a tendency to emulate Irish examples. Akenson, Lougheed, and others note that the basic textbooks introduced for instruction in the Irish national schools remained for thirty years after their introduction what Akenson calls “probably the best schoolbooks produced in the British Isles” (Reference Akenson229). “It can be said that, from the 1840s,” Lougheed observes, “the textbooks published in Ireland became the standard textbooks throughout the British Empire” (Reference Lougheed10).

These textbooks did not contain detailed information on the geography, history, or culture of Ireland and instead presented the United Kingdom as a homogenous society and culture with a superior form of governance from which Ireland particularly and the colonies generally benefitted. As Lougheed remarks:

The importance of the British Empire, with Ireland as a key part, and the “civilising mission” of imperialism were highlighted, especially in the geography sections [of the textbooks]. This emphasised the size and importance of the Empire and also served to inform individuals of opportunities for emigration. … Throughout the publications, racial and cultural views were constructed which privileged European customs. For example, the description of the geography of Africa states that it was a barren region “both as respects to the nature of the soil, and the moral conditions of the inhabitants.”

When a century later Australian, Canadian, Nigerian, Kenyan, or Trinidadian writers would remark that their colonial educations had familiarized them with English landscapes or misty autumns to the exclusion of the ecologies or climates of their own regions, they were probably legatees to an educational and textbook culture initially pioneered in Ireland in the early 1800s.

The emergence of the modern university system and the English department in Ireland must be viewed in these wider national and imperial contexts. Trinity College, which remains Ireland’s most internationally prestigious university, was founded in 1592 at the time of the Tudor plantations and would remain well into the twentieth century what David Dickson has called “the ‘central fortress’ of ancien regime values and Anglican power” (Reference Dickson, Dickson, Pyz and Shephard187). Protestant dominance of the professions in Ireland was, Dickson notes, at its apogee in the 1850s, and in the mid-nineteenth century Trinity competed strongly with other British universities in terms of securing clerkships in the Indian Civil Service (ICS), coming second only to Oxford in competitions for imperial opportunity. When in the 1850s it was decided that recruitment to the ICS should be by competitive examination, Trinity responded promptly and in 1855 appointed William Wright to the chair of Arabic and in 1859 a lecturer, later in 1862 professor, of Sanskrit, Rudolf Thomas Siegfried. R. B. McDowell and D. A. Webb comment that Trinity “was quick to see that the new category of ‘competition-wallah,’ even if looked down on at first by old hands nominated by personal influence, provided a new outlet for Dublin graduates seeking an employment that was at once adventurous and commensurate with their abilities and social status.” As a result, “Trinity sent a steady stream of graduates to India as long as British rule lasted” (Reference McDowell and Webb232–34).

Against the opposition of the Catholic episcopacy, secular nondenominational colleges were opened in Belfast, Cork, and Galway in 1845, which commenced teaching as associative members of the Queens University of Ireland in 1849, as the country was devastated by famine. A separate Catholic university was opened in Dublin in 1854, but without a royal charter to endorse its degrees and suffering from serious underfunding it fared poorly with government-sponsored rivals. In 1882, it was reorganized to become University College Dublin (UCD) and became a constituent member of the Royal University of Ireland, a revised version of the Queens University system. If the Famine devastated the poorest classes in Ireland especially and accelerated chronic migration outward for decades to follow, the same epoch also consolidated Irish Catholic middle-class professional formation. Soon, the new Queens and later Royal colleges were also competing to take advantage of imperial opportunity, turning out graduates to secure ICS clerkships or to work in the Indian medical service or as engineers to meet the demands of Irish and Indian railway booms. S. B. Cook argues that after 1870 Irish competitiveness in ICS exams suffered when Sir Charles Wood and Lord Salisbury reformed the recruitment process to improve the quality of Indian administration. Both men, Cook argues, were sincere in their improving intentions, but nevertheless “they shared the mid-Victorian belief that English gentlemen were the best conceivable imperial guardians. Both men loathed what they regarded as the tradesmen’s instincts and infinite insecurities of youth. But they also doubted the ability of the Irish either to rule themselves or govern others” (Reference Cook514). The reduction in Irish recruitment for Indian positions coincided, then, with a period of increased domestic agitation in Ireland – the Land Wars, the Home Rule crises – and the same universities that contributed to training Irishmen for empire also educated an emergent Irish middle class that would rule the Irish Free State after 1921.

The emergence of English literature as a distinct subject of university study coincided with the appointment of Edward Dowden to the post of Chair of English in Trinity College in 1867. As histories of the discipline make clear, this development represented a wider secular and modernizing turn in Western university education, one that would eventually see the previously dominant Classics become in time a relatively minor discipline and which brought the study of national literatures to the fore. Though part of its mission might be to afford a humanist corrective to the competitive individualism of laissez faire capitalism, in universities committed to securing British national and imperial greatness the study of English inevitably meant that the new discipline acquired its own ideological cast.1

Dowden, for example, was a committed Irish unionist and devotee of the British Empire. Franklin Court claims “Dowden was an outspoken political conservative who distrusted and feared democracy as a great class leveler, but in Dublin particularly, the spectre of Paddy with a torch standing on his doorstep could seem real.” Nevertheless, he adds, “Dowden was not alone among late-century English professors in his ethnocentric support for an idealized historical continuum and in his desire to curtail democratic reform efforts. Although the heritage of Burkean conservatism was more evident in Dowden than in other late-century English professors, the mainstream tradition of literary study in England generally had become tacitly more nationalistic and conservative” (Reference Court154–55).

Dowden had written an authoritative Life of Shelley (1886) before his Trinity appointment and would later write Robert Browning (1904), but his reputation rests primarily on his many studies of Shakespeare, especially Shakespeare: His Mind and Art (1875). Dowden’s Shakespeare offers the playwright as an epitome of Protestant manliness, sound business sense, and liberal tolerance, the antithesis to the mercurial Celtic flightiness then popularized in Celtic and Saxon racial discourses. Though receptive to international intellectual currents, Dowden was stubbornly hostile to the later nineteenth-century Irish Literary Revival, viewing with suspicion anything Irish that would distinguish itself from a common Britishness.2 He was on friendly terms with William Butler Yeats’s family and an admirer of the young Yeats’s poems, but refused to write on Irish writers or subjects and refused permission for his own poetry to be published in a “specially Irish anthology” (Reference LongleyLongley 30). In his later years, Dowden campaigned for the Irish Unionist Alliance against Irish Home Rule and in 1908 took charge of the Irish branch of the British Empire Shakespeare Society (BESS) that had previously been presided over by John Pentland Mahaffy, the distinguished Trinity classicist and onetime tutor to Oscar Wilde. The importance of the English Renaissance period – then celebrated as the “Golden Age” of empire, Shakespeare, and the Globe Theatre – was reflected also in the works of other early chairs of English (or History and English Literature as several were titled) in Irish universities. Frederick S. Boas, Chair of History and English in Queens University Belfast, published many books on Renaissance drama, and Thomas William Moffitt, who became chair of History and English in Queen’s College Galway in 1863, published Selections from the Works of Lord Bacon (1847).

James Joyce was born in 1882, the same year that the Catholic university became University College Dublin. He received his early education in Clongowes Wood College, Co. Kildare, a Jesuit private boarding school opened in 1814 and one of Ireland’s premier elite Catholic schools modeled on English equivalents such as Eton and Harrow. Clongowes had a strong record in training its students for imperial and missionary service and cultivated an English-style sporting ethos that included cricket, association football, lawn tennis, and cycling. Thanks to his father’s improvidence, Joyce’s education differed from that of this elite because he had later to transfer to Belvedere College, Dublin, another elite though somewhat less prestigious Jesuit school. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), the young Stephen Dedalus’s alienation from Clongowes’s muscularly Catholic and imperial ethos is everywhere evident. Stephen is physically timid and lacks interest in sports; his father has Fenian and Home Rule sympathies; his family fortunes are in decline; he loses his religious faith and becomes sexually dissolute: all these things bring the young Dedalus into intellectual conflict with the Clongowes mission to educate cultivated Irish Catholic “gentlemen” with the social poise and assurance to match their Etonian English counterparts. Joyce’s self-exile from Ireland after 1904 meant that he became an émigré distanced from the Home Rule Catholic elite with which he was educated or from the more militant Sinn Féin nationalist middle class as it assumed state power after the War of Independence and the establishment of the Free State in 1921. Nevertheless, Ulysses clearly reflects much of the historical resentment of England and indeed the high ambition of this Catholic bourgeoisie in the era of its radical self-assertion; Joyce worked on that novelistic epic throughout the violent years that led up to the foundation of the Irish Free State.

In the final section of Portrait, as Stephen makes his way toward his university lectures in Earlsfort Terrace, he passes “the grey block of Trinity on his left, set heavily in the city’s ignorance like a great dull stone set in a cumbrous ring” and feels it pull his “mind downward” (Reference Joyce and DeaneJoyce 194). Passing the Trinity entrance, Stephen feels himself “striving this way and that to free his feet from the fetters of the reformed conscience” and observes the “the droll statue of the national poet of Ireland” (Reference Joyce and Deane194). To Stephen, the monument to Thomas Moore positioned just outside Trinity College is pitiable, but he regards the edifice with more sorrow than anger because “though sloth of the body and the soul crept over it like unseen vermin,” the statue “seemed humbly conscious of its indignity.” As Stephen enters Earlsfort Terrace, site of University College Dublin, he reflects, “it was too late to go upstairs to the French class” (Reference Joyce and Deane199). This lateness for French conveys his sense of being severed from the European continent, and Stephen sighs that his own poor knowledge of Latin and his nation’s tardiness would always render him “a shy guest at the feast of the world’s culture” (Reference Joyce and Deane194).

Too late for French instruction, he makes his way to meet the Dean of Studies in one of Portrait’s much-cited set pieces. Listening to the English Jesuit dean speak, Stephen reflects:

The language in which we are speaking is his before it is mine. How different are the words home, Christ, ale, master, on his lips and on mine! I cannot speak or write these words without unrest of spirit. His language so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech. I have not made or accepted its words. My voice holds them at bay. My soul frets in the shadow of his language.

In these passages, Joyce deploys Dublin’s topography to illustrate a history of Irish educational and aesthetic formation that has shaped Stephen but which he must overcome if he is to liberate himself as an artist and “to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race” (Reference Joyce and Deane276). The “dull grey stone” of Trinity College pulls Stephen’s “mind downwards.” Protestantism’s “reformed conscience” does not represent for him the claims for individual freethinking and tolerance, which it claimed for itself, but merely another foot-fetter on his own people. Moore’s statue with its “shuffling feet” and “servile head” symbolizes not some monumental Irish poetic achievement but a subservient sloth. However, because it is “humbly conscious of its indignity,” the monument also painfully registers the centuries of oppression that bred this abased condition. If French culture is beyond his reach, English culture, “so familiar and so foreign,” Stephen admits only as “an acquired speech,” a colonially imposed language his voice “holds at bay” and within which “his soul frets” like a captured thing.

As is now widely recognized, in Portrait Joyce expresses a colonial and postcolonial predicament. Others elsewhere – Chinua Achebe in Nigeria, Ngũgĩ wa’ Thiong’o in Kenya, C. L. R. James and V. S. Naipaul in Trinidad, Derek Walcott in Saint Lucia, Jamaica Kincaid in Antigua – would describe their own childhood schoolroom encounters with the English language and literature in British-centric education systems. These formative experiences usually nurtured lifelong affections for English literature but also the sense of an early indenture into an inheritance not merely not one’s own but that of one’s imperial master. The language options open to these writers varied but a sense of the English language and English literature as both franchise and fetter to self-expression pulsates through the works they created.

Still, there is reason not to overplay Foucauldian or Althusserian conceptions of disciplinary technologies or subject interpellations that control subjectivity so completely as to leave little room for resistance. There are distinctions between constriction and complete constructivism. The importance of the national school system and of university education to the anglicization of Ireland and the cultivation of imperialist mentalities cannot be doubted. However, as Joyce’s situation illustrates, Irish subjects could obviously bring a critical consciousness to bear on the institutions that inculcated such subject formation and many of Joyce’s predecessors and contemporaries responded to their colonial situations more militantly than Joyce did. Wolfe Tone and Robert Emmett, founding figures for militant republicanism, Thomas Davis and John Mitchel, leaders of the Young Ireland cultural nationalist movement, and Isaac Butt and John Redmond, leaders of the Home Rule movement, were all Trinity College students. Leading Catholic republican or nationalist figures including James Fintan Lawlor, a radical Young Irelander, James Stephens, a founder of Fenian Brotherhood, Frank Hugh O’Donnell, MP and anti-imperialist, and Patrick Pearse and Thomas McDonagh, leaders of the Easter 1916 insurrection, all attended Catholic-associated private schools or universities. Many of the most prominent figures in Irish political movements had very little formal schooling. Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, a prominent Fenian, spoke Irish only at home, learned English in a local school, saw his father die of fever in the Famine and his mother and siblings emigrate to America, and found early employment in a relative’s hardware store. Michael Davitt’s Irish-speaking parents were evicted from their Mayo tenant farm in 1850 and then emigrated to Lancashire, where Michael was homeschooled but lost an arm in a factory accident, aged eleven. Born to Irish emigrant parents in a slum district of Edinburgh, James Connolly, founder of the Irish Citizen Army, received minimal formal education at a local Catholic school. He went to work early before joining the British Army, where he may have served in India and did in Ireland, later becoming a trade unionist, socialist, and Irish separatist. Fanny and Anna Parnell, sisters to the charismatic Home Rule leader Charles Stewart Parnell, were born on a landlord’s estate in Wicklow and enjoyed a comfortable upbringing but had very little formal education beyond what they obtained from the family library. The struggles against a colonial educational formation of which Joyce writes so searchingly in Portrait would speak to many young colonized subjects across the British Empire. However, until the universities became somewhat more accessible to women and the working classes after World War II, the educational experiences described by Joyce in Portrait applied only to a tiny percentage of such subjects.

How much did the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1921 do to decolonize the Irish university system or the subject of English more specifically? In the absence of proper departmental histories, the question is impossible to answer in any real detail, though one can hazard broad observations. The partition of Ireland after 1921 meant that the decolonization was partial, and the two new states compounded some of the less progressive features of the colonial system. In the new Northern Irish state especially, where a majoritarian Protestant unionist establishment took power against the backdrop of a slowly contracting British Empire and the emergence of anticolonial national movements on many continents, the colonial and imperial dimensions of higher education may have hardened rather than softened. In both states, primary and secondary education largely remained divided, as it had in nineteenth-century Ireland, along sectarian Catholic and Protestant lines. In the words of recent scholars, the new Ministry for Education in Northern Ireland sponsored “a very clear determination to create a system which would ensure allegiance to the Empire and protect against dissention (e.g. the explicit promotion of elements of Irish culture, history and language)” (Reference O’Toole, McClelland and FordeO’Toole, McClelland, Forde, et al. 1030). In a subsection titled “Loyalty,” the Lynn Committee report of 1923 commissioned to establish Northern Irish educational policy stipulated that all state-funded teachers were to take an oath of allegiance to the British Crown and “no books were to be used in the classroom ‘to which reasonable objection might be entertained on political grounds’” (Reference O’Toole, McClelland and FordeO’Toole, McClelland, Forde, et al. 1030). The report found no justification for any special status for the Irish language and “decided to treat it like any other language, precluding its teaching henceforth below standard five (11 years old) in line with the practice of other ‘foreign’ languages” (Reference O’Toole, McClelland and Forde1030). In this repressive context, the Catholic church refused in the 1920s to transfer their schools to the authority of the Northern state and retained patronage of them, a decision which, the same authors conclude, “proved crucial in sustaining the identity of a coherent Catholic community through to the present day” (Reference O’Toole, McClelland and Forde1030).3

South of the border, the Irish Free State deemed schools and schoolchildren crucial to the cultivation and consolidation of a new national identity. By the 1920s, Ireland was a much-anglicized society, and the new government viewed itself as striving to create or restore a strong sense of “Irishness” in the teeth of a far more powerful British culture in an era of wide-reaching media technologies and culture industries. Thus, the new state established the revival of the Irish language and culture as a priority. Southern policy stipulated that schools were to devote a minimum of one hour every day to instruction in Irish, while no time stipulations applied to other subjects. The Catholic church had already secured considerable control over the southern Irish education system in the post-Famine era, and partition further consolidated this. “The State-Church alliance in education was largely a pragmatic and symbiotic relationship, with the Free State benefitting from the financial resources and reputational legitimacy of the Catholic Church in the provision of educational and other services” (Reference O’Toole, McClelland and FordeO’Toole, McClelland, Forde, et al. 1023).

Leah O’Toole et al. also note that the national school curriculum devised in 1900, before partition, was clearly gendered and specified that “the average primary schoolgirl, when she assumes the position of housewife” ought to be able to “perform the ordinary culinary and washing operations that may appertain to her position” (Reference O’Toole, McClelland and Forde1028). The Victorian conception of girls as miniwives and mothers-to-be persisted after partition. In the 1922 and 1926 curricula in the South, cookery and laundry work were placed center stage for girls only, and every girl was to receive three hours of needlework instruction per week. In the North, too, the 1923 Lynn Report stressed that girls be taught practical skills such as cookery, laundry-work, and household management and that boys learn woodwork (Reference O’Toole, McClelland and FordeO’Toole, McClelland, Forde, et al. 1028–29).

One of the more famous school poems of the era, William Butler Yeats’s “Among School Children,” opens with the poetic persona ruminatively visiting a Catholic girls’ school and ruefully pondering the children’s youth, his own aging, and the mysteries of beauty:

I walk through the long schoolroom questioning;
A kind old nun in a white hood replies;
The children learn to cipher and to sing,
To study reading books and history,
To cut and sew, be neat in everything
In the best modern way – the children’s eyes
In momentary wonder stare upon
A sixty-year-old public smiling man.

Yeats may ponder whether “the best modern way” can produce the natural beauty of the aristocratic Maud Gonne, and he self-deprecatingly presents his own senatorial role in the Free State as he imagines the children might view him. However, the poem’s detached patrician voice contemplating the idea of beauty among nuns and schoolgirls – described in passing as lower class “paddlers” to Maud Gonne’s “swan” (122) – probably reflects something also of the wider hauteur of the new elites in both Irish states with regard to the children of the poorer sort and their education. In other words, the Yeats figure in “Among School Children” is much more preoccupied with his own memoires and cultural ideals than with the actualities of the schoolgirls’ lives or aspirations. The Irish Free State, later Republic, might be accused of a like form of detached idealism, one that prioritized education as nation-building at the expense of any real consideration of the realities of the poor, most destined for manual labor at home or the emigrant boat to Britain or the United States.

Himself deemed only a moderate student in his schooldays, and someone who never attended university, Yeats’s “Among School Children” was written after the poet-senator’s visit in 1926 to St. Otteran’s in Waterford City, a Sisters of Mercy convent founded only a few years earlier in 1920. The school practiced Montessori methods that stress a unity of intellectual and practical activities and creative self-expression. Yeats’s poem conveys a like ideal when it rounds off with a final swerve stanza that favors an organicist mode of cultivation where: “The body is not bruised to pleasure soul, / Nor beauty born out of its own despair, / Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil” (123). These are admirable sentiments, but the realities of Irish education at all levels were mostly remarkably different. For much of the twentieth century, in both the more religious and secular schools, discipline, especially for the lower classes, was harsh or openly violent, educational achievement was determined by rigid exam systems, class and gender stratifications were institutionalized, and university remained restricted, until the 1970s and 1980s, to small minorities. In recent years, commissions to investigate the “industrial schools,” a euphemism for reformatory institutions for juveniles, have attested to an extraordinary history of physical, mental, and sexual abuse of minors. Yeats’s views on education may have been more enlightened than those of many of his contemporaries, but his views on modern democracy, gender, class, and elite rule were mostly, like those of the new elites more widely, very nineteenth-century.4 The more authoritarian, eugenicist, and fascistic notes sounded in his social and poetical works from the 1930s onward caution against any simple notion of linear social or educational progress as modern Ireland transitioned from Dowden’s world of Victorian Ascendancy domination into the turbulence of the mid-twentieth century.

The brief history of the English department’s place in the wider colonial history of Irish education roughly sketched here can in some respects be considered typical. In all regions of the British Empire, the teaching of English literature cultivated a sense of “Britishness” that was always classed, racialized, and gendered. In Ireland, as elsewhere, that process produced mixed results, and the state education systems that emerged out of the anti-imperial independence struggles retained many assumptions and features that had informed the colonial-era system even if they “decolonized” others. It would be interesting to know in more detail to what extent and in what ways university English departments in Ireland, north and south, changed – in terms of ambitions, personnel, curriculum, and modes of teaching – in the decades after the 1920s but, as remarked at the outset of this essay, there are few studies that document such changes.

Nevertheless, if the Irish experience resembles that of other regions of the British Empire in some general respects, in others it is clearly different. The racial, religious, political, and economic histories of particular colonies, and the different types of nationalist movements that assumed power in the aftermath of independence, suggest that the fortunes and dispositions of the English department will differ considerably from one country to another in the era after empire. University English departments in Ireland, Britain, the United States, India, South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, Egypt, Trinidad, or Canada may all look rather alike in appearance, and their faculties may have broadly similar histories of professionalization and credentialing. Nevertheless, those departments clearly operate in quite distinctive circumstances and there are reasons, then, not to assume that the metropolitan histories of the English department in the United States or Britain, about which we have more extensive studies than of their counterparts elsewhere, can serve as standard models for English departments everywhere. By extension, the “decolonization of English” in Oxford or Cambridge, Harvard or Yale, will inevitably mean something quite different to what it might mean in Dublin or Delhi, Mumbai or Melbourne, Seoul or Singapore.

As English departments in North America and the United Kingdom institutionalized what we now call “postcolonial literatures” or “studies” from the late 1980s or 1990s onward, many academics and administrators in Ireland, north and south, regarded such developments nervously. In the context of the long-running conflict in Northern Ireland euphemistically known as “The Troubles,” postcolonial readings of Irish literature seemed to some a reanimation of militant nationalist conceptions of Irish history and literature, or a subordination of literature to political ideology, or an unwarranted conflation of Irish history with that of the colonies proper. This hostility was not confined to conservatives; many liberals shared such views. They held that as Ireland was becoming increasingly integrated into the European Union, Irish culture might better be regarded in “European” rather than in “Third World” terms. Postcolonial studies, some liberal feminists argued, was too closely attached to national paradigms of oppression that attended too much to issues of British imperialism, too little to those of Irish Catholicism or nationalism, or to sexual and gender oppressions. These are simplifications of what were sometimes more complex positions, but they describe the broader contours of the debates that shaped the reception and tentative institutionalization of postcolonial studies in Ireland.

Even as these contentions over “postcolonial studies” animated English studies in Ireland, the transformation of Irish society continued apace. With the economic boom commonly described as the “Celtic Tiger” era, the Republic of Ireland especially underwent one of the most rapid demographic changes in Western Europe and in the island’s modern history. Between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Ireland’s population had increased dramatically, rising from fewer than 3 million in 1700 to over 8 million by the 1841 census. A decade later, as the great Famine was ending in 1851, that population had dropped to 6.5 million. Thanks to chronic rural poverty and the huge diasporic outmigration that continued for decades after the Famine, that figure had dropped to 5 million by 1891 and by 1931 to over 4 million. The island’s population did not rise again until the 1960s. In 2021, the Republic of Ireland’s population topped 5 million for the first time since the 1851 census. However, the economic boom that commenced in the 1990s and lasted until the international banking crisis of 2008 transformed the Republic from a state with a chronic history of outward migration into a country that started to receive a steady flow of immigration. Today, it is estimated that over 17 percent of the population of the Republic of Ireland is foreign born, certainly one of the most dramatic transformations in the society’s history since independence.

Given the size and speed of this transformation, and the fact that some of the new population hails from other former regions of the British Empire or Global South, and much of it thanks to European Union enlargement, from “Eastern Europe,” where the word “colonization” may semaphore the Soviet Union or contemporary Russia rather than Great Britain, the usage “decolonization” will almost certainly be at least as contested and controversial as was the usage “postcolonial” from the 1980s onward. In the current moment, these rapid demographic changes have not yet significantly changed the literary or intellectual fields in Ireland, and the changing composition of the larger population is for now much more evident in the student cohorts taking “English” as a subject than in the teaching cohorts offering such study. This, too, will surely change in time. Though recent migrant populations often veer more toward STEM than to humanities subjects, the literary disciplines will see major changes also.

In the context of this complex colonial history, what might it mean to “decolonize” the English department in Ireland in the second quarter of the twenty-first century? Recent discussions of such matters typically proffer ready proposals such as diversification of teaching curricula and faculty, critiques of eurocentrism, critical histories of the discipline (of a kind, as mentioned at the outset, lacking in Ireland), and greater attention to matters of racial and other oppressions. In an era of rampant neoliberalism that has witnessed the creation of widening cleavages of wealth across classes and the privatization of all sorts of public goods, including education, one wonders whether such strategies, valuable though they be, can be adequate to meet the general challenge. Moreover, in a time when the humanities disciplines especially feel increasingly marginalized by governments and university authorities, some will argue that English literary studies can ill afford analyses of its grimmer historical entanglements and that scholars should articulate positive agendas for the future rather than raking over the past. It does seem imperative that English departments must discover new visions and new institutional structures that would support such visions, but some fuller reckoning with the past seems not so much an impediment as an essential first step toward the discovery and realization of such future visions.

Chapter 3 First Peoples, Indigeneity, and Teaching Indigenous Writing in Canada

Margery Fee and Deanna Reder

When I looked at education from an Indigenous perspective, I saw everything was a problem. … I could not escape the discursive Eurocentric lens that measured everything against itself, and therefore, Indigenous peoples were always found lacking and ultimately to be acted upon by some government initiative.

Marie Battiste, Decolonizing Education: Nourishing the Learning Spirit (35)

Within the colonizing university also exists a decolonizing education.

K. Wayne Yang, “Decolonial Desires” (60)

Must all Native writing be reduced to a singular narrative of colonization and resistance?

Helen Hoy, How Should I Read These? (164)
Standing on Stolen Land: Where Is Here (Now)?

We respectfully acknowledge that we live and work on the unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples: the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), səl̓ilw̓ətaʔɬ (Tsleil-Waututh), q̓íc̓əy̓ (Katzie), kʷikʷəƛ̓əm (Kwikwetlem), qiqéyt (Qayqayt), qʼʷa:n̓ƛʼən̓ (Kwantlen), Səmyámə (Semiahmoo), sc̓əwaθən (Tsawwassen), and Stó:lō Nations.1 It’s not enough, clearly, just to say these words. These territories were never legally ceded to the Crown, although the Crown pretends to own them (Reference Hansonsee Erin Hanson, “Aboriginal Title”). And the Crown is the basis of Canadian law, which until recently did not acknowledge other laws and sovereignties. Land acknowledgments aim to inspire speakers to discover the history of the land on which they are standing and to inculcate a sense of responsibility to the place and its peoples. However, in Enlightenment thinking, land and all of nature are represented as material objects outside of us to be exploited, used, transformed, and known through observation, analysis, and experiment.

In Enlightenment thinking, Nature is opposed to Culture; people can only come to know nature by separating themselves from it.

In contrast, Indigenous epistemes give land an ontological and epistemological importance that is absent in Western culture. Nature is an animate teacher intertwined with culture; animals precede humans and have more power than we do; humans are entangled in a web of relationships that entail reciprocal responsibilities if everyone is to keep on living. And these epistemes have not vanished despite 500 years of colonization.

Even in the anthropological record, Indigenous critique of Western worldviews can be found. For example, in a 1976 article, anthropologist Madronna Holden analyzed some early satirical portraits of the White man popular with the Coast Salish peoples on whose territories Deanna and Margery live. She includes a story written down at the end of the nineteenth century by Boas-trained Livingston Farrand, later the president of Cornell University. Some of the stories Holden examines feature a character called “Jesus Christ,” whose mission, “making all the crooked ways straight,” comes from the Bible: “I will go before thee, and make the crooked places straight” (Isaiah 45:2):

The man who first made the people came from the North and went south. In those days people were upside down and on all fours and crooked and they heard there was a man coming from the North who would make people straight and the man came to Neah Bay … the people were walking on their hands upside down and he straightened them up and made them straight … he went to Quillayute and they were crooked in the same way and he straightened them up … then he reached Hoh and turned and called them to come out … He went to the Quinalt and called them and said “I am the one who is straightening everybody out.”

This busy Straightener keeps going until Farrand’s notes “trail off in mid-sentence” (Reference Holden274). In this story, the White missionary takes on a familiar role, that of Transformer or Changer, but the repetition signals the satire. The storyteller uses few of the usual ways of engaging the listener. Except for the humor. Everyone is changed to be the same, over and over. And over.

This storyteller mocks the obsessive and repetitive work of straightening. One target of mockery could be the perspective that sees a fixed and essentialized object, category, canon, definition, interpretation, story, or self as the goal of analysis. (Plato’s Idea, for example, which went so well with Christianity.) Raven, Coyote, and the other beings like them, however, are continually traveling, meddling, eating, seducing, thieving, destroying. and restoring. (Did Raven steal the light for all earth-beings, or because it was the brightest of bright shiny objects? Who can say?)3 By relying on West Coast epistemes, the storyteller points out that more than one thought-world exists.

Our colleague Jeannette Armstrong (Okanagan/Syilx) explains her people’s relationship to land in the interior of British Columbia:

All my Elders say that it is land that holds all knowledge of life and death and is a constant teacher. It is said in Okanagan that the land constantly speaks. … Not to learn its language is to die. We have survived and thrived by listening intently to its teachings – to its language – and then inventing human words to retell its stories to our succeeding generations.

What would it mean for us as scholars of literary studies to read and teach literature as if our central social ethic, our most important value, was that there was no separation between people and nature? What if we felt responsibility for all earth-beings as kin, including a “sentient land”? (Reference CruikshankCruikshank 142). The rapid adoption of land acknowledgments has not noticeably reduced the contested “development” of Indigenous lands; it seems fair to say that “until actual land is returned, and the terms of some treaties renegotiated or abrogated entirely,” we have not fulfilled the responsibilities of good guests (Reference Wilkes, Duong, Kesler and RamosWilkes, Duong, Kesler, and Ramos 19). The coauthors of the 2014 publication “Learning from the Land” write: “We begin with the premise that if colonization is fundamentally about dispossessing Indigenous peoples from land, decolonization must involve forms of education that reconnect Indigenous peoples to land and the social relations, knowledges and languages that arise from the land” (Reference Wilkes, Duong, Kesler and RamosWilkes, Duong, Kesler, and Ramos, abstract). Those of us who teach literature in the standard low-context classroom, which could be anywhere, need to rethink the idea of “setting.” How to do this will come from those who know the land intimately and can draw on its deep history. For example, Naxaxalhts’i Albert “Sonny” McHalsie provides tours of Stó:lō territory that show visitors that they are standing in a valley that is a library of stories (see Reference CarlsonCarlson). But we must not “reify back-to-the-land schools” either, if that risks overlooking or discounting the work of the Indigenous faculty, staff, and students in the urban university (Reference Chambers, Witter and WeberChambers 40).

In Canadian law, the Indigenous right to land is a unique legal right, sui generis Aboriginal title based on collective ownership prior to contact (Reference HansonErin Hanson, “Aboriginal Title”). In Canadian practice, things are not so clear. As Thomas King notes in The Inconvenient Indian, “the issue has always been land” (Reference King228), but what land means remains quite different for settlers and Indigenous peoples. Indigenous literature provides a way to bring these different meanings into classrooms for generative conversations. Where you are in what is now called Canada makes a great difference not only to whose land you are on, but when settlement began, whether and how treaties were made and kept, how Indigenous oral narratives were written down and who wrote them, how Indigenous people became literate in their own languages or in English, what they chose to write and how it was preserved.4 Thus, how we teach Indigenous literatures depends on where we are. Even the Straightener could not float over an abstract landscape, but traveled to real villages, their names providing the only variety in an otherwise repetitive story.

Who Are We (Now)? Introducing Ourselves

On the territories where we live, local protocols instruct us to introduce ourselves by name, family, and nation. This emphasizes that people have different standpoints and these are to be respected. Margery’s British settler ancestors all took up land in Ontario. She spent childhood summers on Little Lake Panache, which bordered on the Whitefish Indian Reserve (Anishinaabe). Her decolonial education began while picking blueberries, when her aunt said, “No, we can’t go further, because the berries that way belong to the Indians.” When she arrived at UBC, a course on Indigenous literatures in the calendar had never been taught. After consulting Jo-ann Archibald, then the Director of the First Nations House of Learning, and others, she began to teach it in 1997.

While Deanna’s dad was born in Canada, his German-speaking parents left Poland after World War I and ended up in Manitoba; her mom was born in Northern Saskatchewan, into a family of English- and Cree-speaking Cree and Métis people. Raised on or near Canadian military bases, she learned about her relatives through her mother’s stories and summer visits. Despite her interest, the universities she attended offered no courses in Indigenous literatures. She took her first formal course with Margery in 2000, just before she applied to the PhD program.

While there are many purposes for the position statements embedded in Indigenous protocols and land acknowledgments, they highlight the variety of vantage points from which each of us speak and emphasize that an unbiased and neutral position is neither possible nor desirable. This aligns with Foucault’s notion of power/knowledge and feminist standpoint theory, developed to undermine the notion of one universal and objective truth, a truth regarded as self-evident rather than constructed by (powerful) men (Harding; Moreton-Robinson). What we know, what we can know, comes first from where we stand, not alone, but with those who have raised and taught us. To position oneself encourages reflection on one’s roles, gifts, limitations, and responsibilities.

The Limitations of Our Discipline

Applied linguist Suresh Reference CanagarajahCanagarajah summarizes Euro-Western monomania: “The graphocentric tradition is a monolingual (one language per text), monosemiotic (alphabets preferred over other sign systems such as icons, symbols, or images), and monomodal (visual preferred over oral, aural, and other multimodal channels). European modernity developed the idea that words were the most accurate and objective representation of ideas” (44). And in British settler colonies, these words are usually English words. English professor Siraj Ahmed examines how British orientalist philology appropriated prior oral and written narrative: “Colonialism involved the conquest of an epistemic space, by means of which the physical experience of language was turned … into ‘abstract legality.’ The human sciences have rewritten this act of conquest as the gift of historical sensibility” (Reference Ahmed324).

Our discipline’s very name privileges the printed text. Critics who question the unqualified use of English terms for Indigenous oral genres propose alternatives, among them orature, oraliture, verbal art, and storywork.5 They avoid folding oral narratives into written ones, which obscures how oral narratives proliferate in multiple versions within collectives, are performed for various audiences, pass knowledge ranging from the practical to the esoteric down the generations, and nurture both people and land. Because the study of spoken narrative has been taken up by other disciplines (anthropology, cultural studies, linguistics, performance studies, rhetoric), our ability to teach literatures rooted in a living oral matrix is constrained. More interdisciplinarity and lines of communication with knowledge keepers outside the university would help. But however we tackle this limitation, we need to teach the colonial work done by the fetishization of the English written word.

“School Way” and Academic Rhetoric

As anthropologists Charles L. Briggs and Richard Bauman note, “Ways of speaking and writing make social classes, genders, races, and nations seem real and enable them to elicit feelings and justify relations of power, making subalterns seem to speak in ways that necessitate their subordination” (Reference Briggs and Bauman17). Since you are reading this, you are, as Mabel Mackay told Greg Sarris, “school way” (quoted in Reference SarrisSarris 48) and like fish in water, swim in print and academic rhetoric, barely able to recognize other good ways of keeping knowledge alive. We fish need to have – and teach – humility in the face of the difference between what is taken in dominant culture as fact or truth – and what dominant culture classifies as (implicitly unbelievable) “beliefs.” Our field deals with products of the human imagination classified as untrue, leaving truth to science. What might happen if we saw Indigenous worldviews as true, rather than discounting them as primitive, superstitious, unsophisticated, unscientific? Many Indigenous scholars put their worldviews into dialogue with the dominant one, using metaphors like weaving, braiding, or “two-eyed seeing.”6 As articles, books, and dissertations by Indigenous scholars mount up, these worldviews challenge the status quo. For example, Métis scholar Warren Cariou, in his 2021 article, “On Critical Humility,” insists that Indigenous literary analysis ought to be “like visiting a friend or relation, [which] would mean showing up without an agenda, without a preconceived notion of what we want to gain from this encounter”; it would be uninterested in establishing mastery and “more responsible to the Indigenous communities and people it is discussing” (Reference Cariou11). Key to Cariou’s ideas is that the responsibilities embedded in relationships should come first.

Following Cariou’s advice leads us to rethink the relationship of the critic to language and languages: “Documentary practices focus on language as a code that needs to be preserved. This renders language as a science object that can be taken out of context and dismembered into its constituent parts: phonemes, morphemes, syntactic structures, and semantic analyses. This strategy also ignores the collateral extinctions that accompany language extinction, such as ‘education, religion, knowledge, everyday social interactions, and identity’” (Baldwin, Noodin, and Perley 217). As Maya Odehamik Chacaby points out, “language resources are important, but often the translations without the high-context relationships with Anishinaabe worldview result in a shelf full of language resources and no reason to use them” (7). As she points out, these languages contain concept-words central to Indigenous philosophy.7 The myth of the “vanishing Indian” supported “salvage” of the culture in the assumption that the people and their lived relationships were vanishing. We continue such extinction discourses by promoting the “definitive,” the “canonical,” and the “authoritative.”

One strategy used by Indigenous authors to avoid always being drawn into the concerns of the canon is to “imagine otherwise,” as championed by Cherokee scholar Daniel Heath Justice; to work within the speculative genres of science fiction, fantasy, and alternate history gives literary scholars the opportunity to “teach otherwise.” Perhaps our familiarity with the “what if?” will help us appreciate the gift that we have already received. Sami scholar Rauna Kuokkanen writes: “Without waiting to be invited, Indigenous epistemes are already ‘in’ the academy. The problem is not how to bring Indigenous knowledge to the university, since it is already there. The problem is the epistemic ignorance that prevails because the gift of Indigenous epistemes remains impossible in the academy” (108). Traditional oral narratives should not be used without appropriate permission,8 but the one about the Straightener was clearly intended for Farrand, and thus, for most of us. Bringing Indigenous ways of knowing, ways of teaching, and ways of writing into the academy, however, must be an ongoing Indigenous-led collective endeavor. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson writes that:

We cannot carry out the kind of decolonization our Ancestors set in motion if we don’t create a generation of land-based, community-based intellectuals and cultural producers who are accountable to our nations and whose life work is concerned with the regeneration of these systems rather than meeting the overwhelming needs of the Western academic industrial complex or attempting to “Indigenize the academy” by bringing Indigenous Knowledge into the academy on the terms of the academy itself.

Despite Kuokkanen’s and Simpson’s justified wariness about indigenizing the academy, they are writing – helpfully – for those who are “school way.” Many others have done the same: we need to engage with their work. To decolonize, we must explicitly teach how the discipline of English literature was developed to justify empire and how its teaching masked the conquest of Indigenous land and sovereignty (Reference ViswanathanViswanathan). We also need to teach how “epistemic ignorance” is continually reinforced by mainstream discourses. For example, every announcement of Indigenous students’ drop-out rates shifts the responsibility for educational success onto individual students rather than onto a system designed for “students who are white, cismale, heterosexual, middle-to-upper class, lacking dis/abilities, and without children. If a student deviates from these categories, they are more likely to experience oppressive obstructions in the completion of their degree” (Reference Gaudry, Danielle, Smith, Tuck and YangGaudry and Lorenz 167). And they are likely to blame themselves for failing, too.

Literary Studies in English Canada

The Straightener certainly came to North American universities, producing a literary curriculum with a backbone formed by historical British literature. Indigenous peoples, defined as without writing, without history, and without literature, could not be nations. In Canada, in 1864, Edward Hartley Dewart published Selections from the Canadian Poets as evidence of “the subtle but powerful cement of a national literature” (Reference Dewartix). Nonetheless, W. J. Alexander’s 1889 professorship at the University of Toronto instituted a British period-based curriculum as the national model; his anthologies promoted the British canon (Casteel; Hubert; Reference MurrayMurray). Canadian literature courses became common only in the 1970s, a nationalist move crystallized by Northrop Frye’s The Bush Garden (Reference Frye1971) and Margaret Atwood’s Survival (Reference Armstrong and Grauer1972). In the context of Canada’s centennial, the anti-Americanism inspired by the Vietnam War, and the rise of Quebec sovereignist movements, Frye and Atwood regarded literature as the powerful cement needed to bond diverse and multilingual citizens. Frye writes: “to feel Canadian was to feel part of a no-man’s land with huge rivers, lakes, and islands that few Canadians had ever seen” (Reference Frye222). His expression, “no-man’s land,” resonates with a powerful narrative: the legal concept of terra nullius, which underpins the doctrine of discovery (see Lindberg). In Survival, Atwood writes “Literature is … a map, a geography of the mind. … We need such a map desperately because we need to know about here because here is where we live” (Reference Armstrong and Grauer18–19). This “we” excludes Indigenous peoples. Frye and Atwood imagine an empty territory, not the one that had, in fact, been emptied by disease, violence, and British law. Slowly, the publication of Indigenous memoirs, novels, plays, and poetry began to rework this hallucinated Great White North. Writers and critics, many of them racialized and classified as multicultural “immigrants” rather than proper (White, settler) Canadians, began to chip the façade off the sepulchre. Revisionist literary histories appeared. Daniel Coleman’s White Civility: The Literary Project of English Canada discusses the “construction of White, English Canadian privilege” in popular literature between 1850 and 1950, a narrative that hid the “undead” history of slavery, racist immigration policies, and Indigenous oppression under the scrim of Canadian civility (Reference Coleman3).

Indigenous literature courses first appeared in the 1990s, marked by the publication of the first teaching anthology, An Anthology of Native Canadian Literature in English (1992), edited by postcolonial scholar Terry Goldie and Delaware poet Daniel David Moses.9 The shift to Indigenous-content courses has accelerated since the publication of the final report of the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015 (Truth and Reconciliation Commission). Adam Gaudry and Danielle Lorenz survey Indigenous instructors’ diverse responses to making such courses mandatory, a thrust that might “displac[e] a more ambitious goal of decolonizing education that aspires to more fundamentally transform relations of power beyond the academy” (Reference Gaudry, Danielle, Smith, Tuck and Yang162). Like the “New” World, Indigenous and ethnic minority literatures are often seen as new, although they are rooted in long-standing traditions. Courses in Indigenous literatures, comprised of genres recognizable as “literature,” have often simply been bolted on to the existing British period-based curriculum, reinforcing an aesthetic and generic hierarchy, a center–periphery model of space and a linear model of “progressive” time. In response, Indigenous intellectuals, nations, and political organizations founded Indigenous-controlled literary-critical institutions and resources. To name only a few, they established writing schools (the En’owkin International School of Writing), presses (Theytus, Kegedonce), book series, journals (Gatherings; Kivioq; Nesika), anthologies (Reference HodgsonHodgson; King; Armstrong and Grauer; McCall, Reder, Gaertner, and L’Hirondelle Hill), and collections of literary criticism (Reference ArmstrongArmstrong, Looking at the Words of our People; Reference McFarlane and RuffoRuffo; Reference McLeodMcLeod, Indigenous Poetics; McFarlane and Ruffo; Reder and Morra). Overviews of nation-specific thought and writing appeared (e.g., Reference ArmstrongArmstrong, Constructing Indigeneity; Reference McLeodMcLeod, Cree Narrative Memory; Monture). Additional resource material included overviews (Justice) and bibliographical databases (Books to Build On: Indigenous Literatures for Learning; The People and the Text: Indigenous Writing in Northern North America to 1992) and even an editor’s style guide (Younging). These initiatives can be used to challenge the dominant approach to knowledge and pedagogy.

Start Local: Rethinking the University from Here

How could a literature class become a field school? Given that all universities sit on what once were actual fields, forests, or even waterways, getting into the field is simple. But how is our field connected to theirs? Individual instructors cannot get to know or teach all of the diverse cultural output of the many peoples crammed into categories such as First Nations, Inuit, and Métis. Our primary responsibility is to those on whose territories we live and work, especially if we are uninvited guests. Eber Hampton, the Chickasaw educator who presided over the transition of the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College, founded in 1976, into the First Nations University in 2003, pointed out that “local control is a defining characteristic of Indian education, not just a philosophical or political good. There can be no true Indian education without Indian control. Anything else is white education applied to Indians” (quoted in Reference TanerTaner 307). And the local includes both the original landholders and the many Indigenous people who have moved to cities as a result of colonization.10 Thus, literary scholars should look to the local, where it is more likely that they can connect with writers, Elders, and knowledge keepers, and where they may find, after appropriate consultation, that they or their students might be able to learn from and contribute to community.

Our discipline, founded as it was on the study of dead White male British writers, has to broaden its horizons to include methods we ourselves never learned.11 We now deal not only with a diverse group of living writers, but also with their people’s narrative belongings, both oral and written. The three major Canadian academic research agencies have instituted guidelines for research “developed with the participation and consent of Indigenous scholars and Elders in Canada,” which includes this statement: “Indigenous knowledge belongs to specific peoples rather than to the public domain, creating specific laws about who can use, teach, know, and continue to use certain parts of that knowledge” (Canada, Tricouncil). The University of Manitoba Press series, First Voices, First Texts, for example, publishes first or new editions of works by Indigenous writers: “The editors strive to indigenize the editing process by involving communities, by respecting traditional protocols, and by providing critical introductions that give readers new insights into the cultural contexts of these unjustly neglected classics.” One outcome can be the refusal of families to agree to publication, even if the work is in the “public” domain. How can we put notions of academic freedom into conversation with Indigenous “refusal as an analytic practice that addresses forms of inquiry as invasion”? (Reference Tuck and Wayne YangTuck and Yang, abstract).

Reading on the Edges, Reading from Here

Everywhere in North America with a college or university is also the site of Indigenous narrative production. Our universities have campuses on Coast Salish and Interior Salish territories. We can quickly name Indigenous writers of mainstream genres with strong connections to these lands. Although poet and performer E. Pauline Johnson (1861–1913) was Mohawk, she retired to Vancouver. She was befriended by Joe (Sapluk) and Mary Agnes (Lixwelut) Capilano, (Skwxwú7mesh), who told her stories, most collected as Legends of Vancouver (Reference Johnson, Johnson, Capilano, Capilano and Shield1911).12 As an Okanagan woman, Mourning Dove (Christine Quintasket), author of Cogewea, The Half-Blood: A Depiction of the Great Montana Cattle Range (Reference Dove1927), belonged to one of several cross-border nations and moved back and forth across that constructed divide. Jeannette Armstrong (Okanagan/Syilx) and Lee Maracle (Stó:lō) have mothered creativity, mentoring Indigenous writers and bolstering the publication and teaching of Indigenous literatures, as well as writing their own multigenre works.

To restrict curricula to those Indigenous writers whose ancestors lived here for thousands of years risks a straightening purism – Vancouver is now home to many Indigenous people from far and wide. Some of them write out of that dislocation, from seeing themselves or being seen as “not authentic.” As a result, lived experience as an Indigenous person can be discounted and lost. Shirley Sterling attended the notorious Kamloops Indian Residential School, writing about the experience in her award-winning autobiographical children’s novel, My Name Is Seepeetza (Reference Sterling1992). She wrote, “I have never thought of myself as a particularly traditional or spiritual Nlaka’pamux person. In fact, I delayed writing in the First Nations voice for many years, because I thought I was not raised traditionally enough.” Her experiences as a graduate student and instructor led her to call the academy an “adversarial arena” (“Reference SterlingSeepeetza Revisited” n. pag.) Writing for many in the next generation, Jordan Abel’s multi-genre NISHGA (Reference Abel2020), explains how the trauma from those schools has reverberated, leading many Indigenous peoples living in cities to struggle to create identifications that represent their experiences away from home territory and original family and community.

Indigenous Interpretation and Pedagogy

Indigenous peoples preserve stories by telling and retelling them, not through authorized interpretation or canonization. Storytellers do not explain stories” (Reference BrundigeBrundige 291). Margery was both shocked and intrigued when she read Maracle’s “You Become the Trickster” in 1990, when she had just begun teaching Indigenous students. Explaining Indigenous stories, Maracle writes:

The difference is that the reader is as much a part of the story as the teller. Most of our stories don’t have orthodox “conclusions”; that is left to the listeners, who we trust will draw useful lessons from the story – not necessarily the lessons we wish them to draw, but all conclusions are considered valid. The listeners are drawn into the dilemmas and are expected at some point to work themselves out of it. … When our orators get up to tell a story, there is no explanation, no set-up to guide the listener – just the poetic terseness of the dilemma is presented.

So, Indigenous peoples did not have literary critics? Indeed, Maracle “wonder[s] about the necessity for the door-closing practice currently known as literary criticism” (Reference Maracle and KamboureliMemory Serves 197–98). Why would storytellers allow such interpretative autonomy? Keith Basso, an anthropologist who worked with the Western Apache, explains: “persons who speak too much insult the imaginative capabilities of other people, ‘blocking their thinking,’ as one of my consultants said in English, and ‘holding down their minds’” (Reference Basso85). Neal McLeod (Cree) remembers that his father “never said what the points of his stories were; he forced the listeners to discover this for themselves” (Reference McLeodCree Narrative Memory 13). Keavy Martin writes about taking her students to the Arctic: “Younger Inuit also taught us the appropriate ways of learning from elders and this did not involve peppering them with enthusiastic questions” (Reference Martin54). Direct instruction is seen as disrespectful; a story is an acceptable way to warn, advise, instruct, reprove, or support someone else. This isn’t to say that listeners are free to interpret by disregarding the stories, the storytellers, and the culture. Instead, interpretation needs to be based on respect and on the quality of relationships with the stories and their tellers.

An early staple of Indigenous literature curricula was Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water (Reference King1993), which taught a huge swath of Indigenous knowledge by being funny enough and puzzling enough that readers spent a lot of time trying (in a pre-internet era) to understand the gnomic statements of the wise characters. The novel’s way of working is exemplified by the chapter headings in Cherokee syllabics. Students were thinking and investigating for themselves, rather than waiting for the prof to explain – but of course, explain one of us did (see Reference Fee and FlickFee and Flick). Although we cherish our own academic freedom, we don’t always support the curiosity and cognitive autonomy of our students. Navajo scholar Gregory Cajete insists that “Indigenous teachings view each student as unique, each with a unique path of learning to travel during his or her lifetime. … each person is, fundamentally, his or her own teacher and that learning is connected to the individual’s life process” (Reference Cajete and Tanakaxv). Nonetheless, our discipline does foster such autonomy. English professor Ruth Felski notes, “while students nowadays are likely to be informed about critical debates and literary theories, they are still expected to find their own way into a literary work, not to parrot the interpretations of others” (Reference Felski11). This pedagogy is common in our interactions with graduate students when we begin to make knowledge together, rather than asking for or doling out information.

Indigenous young people are expected to observe how their Elders conduct themselves and how they carry out tasks, “watch-then-do” pedagogy (Reference DonaldsonDonaldson). Youth sometimes visit an Elder and carry out chores for them or give them gifts of tobacco or sweetgrass in order to be apprenticed to a specific skill (see Reference Wheeler, Lischke and McNabWheeler on Cree). A course designed by Lorna Williams (Lil’wat) led a participant to express her first reactions to Indigenous pedagogy: “I grew frustrated and discouraged when I was not handed the answer on a platter. … I chastised myself for not being able to wait, slow down, and just listen. All I was after was a quick fix, and that fact upset me” (Reference Williams, Tanaka, Leik, Riecken, Etmanski, Hall and DawsonWilliams, Tanaka, Leik, and Riecken 245–47). Historian Katrina Srigley describes the drive for quick solutions to systemic inequities consolidated over centuries. She writes of her interactions with knowledge keepers and Elders, “Each time I hoped for a ten-point plan, a how-to guide; I never received one. Instead, I was given stories about reciprocity, developing ideas in partnership, ownership of knowledge, status, belonging, and identity” (Reference Srigley and Sutherland20). Indigenous teachers focus on values rather than content.13 Dwayne Donald calls the difference between mainstream and Indigenous teaching methods as the difference between “fort pedagogy” and “ethical relationality” (Reference Donaldson45).

We need to slow down, listen, and do our homework. Fortunately, Indigenous historians, writers, and critics are actively producing a decolonizing and heterogeneous narrative studies attentive to interconnected nation-specific, urban, diasporic, national, and global intellectual currents.

Aubrey Hanson (Métis) hails non-Indigenous Canadians to begin working to understand and dismantle the social systems that produced the residential schools so as “to make way for Indigenous resurgence,” which is “people in their own communities nourishing their own traditions, languages, worldviews, stories, knowledges and ways of being” (“Reference HansonReading for Reconciliation?” 75). At this juncture, given the gap between worldviews, conversations over tea are more likely to change things for the better than any checklist or ten-point plan.

Chapter 4 Decolonizing Literary Pedagogies in Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand

Elizabeth McMahon

You have to navigate the space between the borders
of your skin and the intelligence of the tongueless horizon
and learn the language of touch    of signs and pain
of what isn’t and what may be in the circle of the tides
that will stretch until you understand the permanent silence
at the end of your voyage
Albert Wendt, “Stepping Stones”

This chapter sets out some of the complexities and strategies regarding processes of decolonizing literary pedagogies in two proximate sites of the Global South: Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand. In this project, I advocate an intersectional approach and method that defetishizes the literary object and enables students to engage with various forms of literary creativity in their varied and shifting positions within place, history, and culture. Ben Etherington and Jarad Zimbler argue:

A decolonized literary studies does not come off-the-peg, and making decisions about what or who we read requires that we think concertedly about the colonial legacies and entanglements of particular places and literary communities at particular historical junctures. It requires, in other words, that we think seriously about what exactly “context” means.

So, too, as Wiradjuri1 writer, teacher and academic Jeanine Leane writes, “history and literature are inseparable” (Reference Leane, Birns, Moore and ShieffLeane, “Aboriginal Literature” 238) and, as Samoan writer Albert Wendt claims, “all creative writers are historians” Reference Wendt(“Insider” 6, quoted and discussed in Reference SharradSharrad, “Albert Wendt”). Accordingly, the ensuing discussion devotes a great deal of space to particularities of “context” and moves between specific and shared experiences of Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand and includes some comparison. This essay was researched and written on the unceded, sovereign lands of the Bedegal people of the Eora Nation of what is also called Sydney, Australia. In this project, I have consulted First Nations writers and academics from both countries and, amongst a range of responses, I have met with some (depersonalized) resistance to my authorship of this chapter around issues of the ongoing authority accorded and exercised by non-Indigenous academics. I am a senior settler academic in a country, Australia, that only recognized the citizenship of its First Nations peoples in 1967 and which is only now debating whether the constitution should include recognition of First Nations primacy.2 Also, I am neither a Māori nor a Pākehā3 (European non-Māori) citizen of Aotearoa New Zealand so there are colonizing issues about me speaking of that context. This occurs in a long history of Australia commandeering debate in the Australasian context. The issue of decolonization, including the decolonization of literary pedagogies, is immediate, fraught, and painful in both places.

The points of connection and distinctiveness between Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand are clarifying relative to broad issues of decolonizing literary pedagogies as well as each of these two places. The key sites of these correlations and divergences concern their respective First Nations peoples, their particular British colonial histories, positions in the (colonized) region, scales of territory and population, the patterns of regional and global immigration, and their attendant demographics and literatures. Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand are close neighbors, and the bonds between them are deep, but they are also relatively recent. There was no relationship between the First Nations peoples of the two territories before British colonization, and they became more distant when the colonial structure of “Australasia” – which embraced the many British colonies in Oceania – was dismantled in 1901 when Australia federated to become a nation state (Reference DenoonDenoon).

There has been little critical work on the literatures of both places. If they are grouped together at all, it is most often for bibliographic purposes, and from distant perspectives they seem to appear as a kind of duo. However, the actual links have been tenuous. In 2012, a proposal to expand the Association for the Study of Australian Literature (ASAL) to include the literature of Aotearoa New Zealand – where there is no equivalent scholarly society – was rejected by the Australian members (Reference BrennanBrennan). The reasons for this decision were largely nationalist and partly logistical. There was also the view that the South Pacific Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies (SPACLALS) fulfilled this function.4 Resistance also reflected an anxiety connected to being a largely invisible national literature of the Global South at a time when the category of national literatures was contested (Reference DixonDixon, “National Literatures”). At this time, Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand were encountering new – and ongoing – threats to copyright law that would decimate local publishing houses, which are vital to literary cultures in both places (Loukakis; Reference NagleNagle). Finally, wider Australian culture including government, does not display much interest or support for its literary cultures (Reference MeyrickMeyrick). So there was an understandable motivation to protect ASAL from diffusion or increased opacity.

Nonetheless, in the view of this author, the decision not to expand the Association to include Aotearoa New Zealand was a missed opportunity that significantly slowed the pace of the decolonization of literary research and pedagogies in Australia, and perhaps Aotearoa New Zealand as well. In particular, it would have provided a forum for the First Nations peoples of both places, who have too often been in radical minority in such organizations, and it would have meaningfully complicated the power binary of the First Nations and settler cultures in each place. Moreover, ASAL missed the opportunity to provide this intellectual space and undertake the education and critique this process would have required.

Over the past decade, there has been increased contact between the First Nations writers of both places, including the biannual conventions of the First Nations Australia Writers Network (FNAWN) from 2013 (First Nations Australia Writers Network), in artistic practices such as Spoken Word Poetry, and in collections such as Sold Air (Reference Stavanger and Te WhiuStavanger and Te Whiu). I note also that Black Marks on the White Page, a collection of “Oceanic stories for the twenty-first century,” edited by Witi Ihimaera and Tina Makereti, includes work from Wanyi Australian writer Alexis Wright, as the editors extend the category of the Pacific to its furthest western point in an explicit gesture of inclusion of Australia’s First Nations.

These connections are an inchoate force gaining momentum. So, too, as Alice Te Punga Somerville recently showed, these links are not new (Reference Te Punga SomervilleTe Punga Somerville). In “Reading as Cousins: Indigenous Texts, Pacific Bookshelves,” Te Punga Somerville focuses on an “impossible photograph” that shows First Nations writer and activist Oodgeroo Noonuccal with Pasifika writers at the 1980 SPACLALS conference. SPACLALS, structured by the comparative practices of postcolonialism, now has far fewer members – there are far fewer academic staff in English literary studies – and the upsurge of First Nations activism and literatures in the last three decades has focused attention on the redress of specific histories. However, perusal of the programs of mainstream writers’ festivals in either place over the last decade shows very little interaction or interest in either settler culture or First Nations writers between neighbors, with both countries preferring to select their international guests from farther afield rather than connecting with their own region.5

As this lack of interaction suggests, Australians and Aotearoa New Zealanders have a poor record of reading and teaching each other’s literature. This is, in large part, a legacy of colonial publishing structures, by which books were generally published in Britain until the mid-twentieth century. Most Australians would not ever have read any literature of Aotearoa New Zealand and vice versa.6 There have been very few exceptions to this mutual and structural aversion. Its most visible exception, Lydia Wevers, describes the situation: “I am an Aotearoa New Zealand reader of Australian literature. That makes me just about a category of one. The reverse category, an Australian reader of Aotearoa New Zealand literature, is also a rare beast, though perhaps there is a breeding pair in existence” (Reference Wevers“The View from Here” 1). Wevers made this observation in her keynote address at the 2008 conference of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature (ASAL), an annual event she traveled across the Tasman Sea to attend for two decades – the only Aotearoa New Zealander to do so.

Australian First Nations writers and critics lead the decolonization of Australian literary studies and include the highly influential interventions of The First Nations Writers Network, Jeanine Leane, Kim Scott, Alexis Wright, Ali Cobby Eckermann, Lionel Fogarty, Jim Everett, Melissa Lucashenko, Evelyn Araluen, and Yvette Holt amongst many others. Wevers’s perspective as a non-Australian and as Pākehā New Zealander also assisted in patterning modes of decolonization for Australian literary studies through comparison of the two contexts. She achieved this by her persistent and productive criticism of Australian scholarship’s unconscious colonialism. Her 2006 essay, “Being Pakeha: The Politics of Location” provided a model for theorizing localized complexities and responsibilities of settler-culture standpoint (Reference WeversWevers, “Being Pakeha”). She also convened the 2012 annual ASAL conference in Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand – the only ASAL conference ever held offshore – where Australian delegates encountered the standard protocols of Māori recognition, including the extensive welcome onto the Te Herenga Waka Marae (Victoria University’s tribal meeting ground), which went far beyond the tokenism of Australian settler-culture practices of the time. Wevers understood her position as the director of the Stout Research Centre for New Zealand Studies at Wellington University as an opportunity to effect decolonizing change and expected or imagined that we Australians shared that objective.7 Her influence alone is evidence of the potential benefits of trans-Tasman interaction regarding the decolonization of literary studies in the region.

There has been some change. The Association of the Australian University Heads of English (AUHE), the peak body for university English education and research, amended its mission statement in 2021 to identify the necessity of “decolonising and indigenising the field of English education and research” and harvests information and strategies from across the country for use in teaching and research (“Mission Statement”). In 2022, all keynote papers at the ASAL conference were given by First Nations writers and critics from across Australia and from Aotearoa New Zealand. So, too, the conference was framed by local community members from nipaluna/Hobart and palawa writers from lutrawita/Tasmania, and many of the conference sessions were focused on the decolonization of Australian literary studies including research, curricula, and pedagogies (“Coming to Terms”). Of course, these shifts do not signal the achievement of a decolonized field, but they do mark a significant moment in the process of decolonizing literary studies research and teaching.

This mutual ignorance of Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand’s literature is true also of educational institutions where, with only a couple of exceptions, neither place teaches the literature of the other. In researching this chapter, I located one course in Aotearoa New Zealand that includes Australian literature (Victoria University, Wellington, which was originally set up by Wevers) and one course in Australia (University of Adelaide), framed as a “Trans-Tasman” study, which engages with the literatures of both places as an interaction. One other, Australia and Oceania in Literature (University of New England), conceives of these literatures regionally. The Postcolonial Literatures course at my own university, the University of New South Wales (UNSW Sydney), opens with the verse novel Ruby Moonlight by Yankunytjatjara/Kokatha poet Ali Cobby Eckermann. It is a first-contact narrative set in mid-north South Australia in the 1880s. The course also includes a module that groups together Pacific, Aotearoa New Zealand, and Australian literatures relative to First Nations Spoken Word poetry. If there are any more courses in either country, they are well hidden. It is more common for the postcolonial courses in each place to develop curricula that span diverse and far-flung contexts of the former empire: Africa, South Asia, Canada, the Caribbean. Moreover, when Aotearoa New Zealand thinks regionally in this context it is far more commonly in relation to its Pacific neighbors rather than Australia. The main reason for this is the deep connections between Pasifika peoples and Māori and the number of Pasifika people settled in Aotearoa New Zealand.8 Aotearoa New Zealand is a Pacific country with a Pacific history, populations, and imaginary. Australia is not, though the state of Queensland in northeastern Australia has some strong identifications.9 There are increasing numbers of Pasifika peoples migrating to Australia permanently or on extended fly-in–fly-out working visas, but Australia’s imaginaries are of the interior and the littoral. When Australia federated in 1901 and separated from Britain’s other Pacific colonies, it become more insular in this respect (Denoon; Perera; McMahon, “Gilded Cage”; Reference McMahonMcMahon, “Encapsulated Space”).

Both Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand are what Alan Lawson first termed “second world” societies, so named to emphasize their “secondariness” and “second-ness.” They share, with Canada and South Africa, the ambiguous status of being “both imperialised and colonising” (Reference LawsonLawson).10 Together with Canada – but not South Africa – these second-world settler cultures now constitute significant majorities of the populations of each place. Australia’s population as at 31 December 2021 was 25,766,605. Of this number, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people represent 3.2% of the population; 26% of the population were born overseas, and Aotearoa New Zealanders ranked as the fourth-highest immigrant group. As of March 2022, the population of Aotearoa New Zealand was 5,124,100, of which 17.1% are Māori and a further 8.1% are Pasifika (“New Zealand Country Brief”). Just over 27% of the population of Aotearoa New Zealand were born overseas, and Australians have historically comprised one of the top three immigrant groups.11

The development of literary studies as part of the expansion of Australian universities is clarified by Catherine Manathunga’s 2016 comparative study, “The Role of Universities in Nation-Building in 1950s Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand.” Manathunga identifies three major differences between the two reports commissioned by Australia (1957) and Aotearoa New Zealand (1959) respectively to assess the need for the expansion of their university sectors. Manathunga’s first finding underscores the well-known difference in attitudes to Britain. As a former penal colony, one of the ur-narratives of settler Australia is the need to cut ties with the “mother country.” Accordingly, the Australian report included little about British universities. The Aotearoa New Zealand report, on the other hand, based its recommendations on a British educational ideal. The second finding points to the greater gender bias of Australia – no surprises there. Australia has a long history of settler-culture misogyny.12 The third issue relates to the composition of disciplines and faculties. The Aotearoa New Zealand report considers the modern university in terms of cultural benefit, which it links institutionally to the arts and humanities. The Australian recommendations, on the other hand, in keeping with mainstream Australia’s ongoing suspicion of the arts, view the arts and humanities as addenda for the main business of science and technology.13 The three distinctions Manathunga identifies in the reports of the 1950s may well still hold in 2022, especially in relation to the respective institutional commitments to cultural benefit.

In 2023, policies of the governing bodies of Australian and Aotearoa New Zealand universities, Universities Australia and Universities New Zealand – Te Pōkai Tara respectively, indicate that Australia lags behind its neighbor in many aspects of decolonizing policies including literary pedagogies.14 While not fully accounting for this lag, it is true that Australia is a much larger and more complex context: it has forty-three universities, spread over a vast continent that is homeland to 250 First Nations with as many languages. Its population is also far more multicultural. Aotearoa New Zealand has eight universities that cover the two main islands which are home to thirty-five Iwi (Māori community) groups, who, with variations, share(d) the same language, te reo Māori. This small number of universities and the shared understanding of te reo Māori has enabled Universities New Zealand – Te Pōkai Tara to implement the “Te Kāhui Amokura Strategic Work Plan” across all universities in the country.

However, even with the differences of scale and diversity noted, Universities Australia’s actions regarding the decolonization of governance, research, and pedagogy are long overdue, which it admits in its Indigenous Strategy Paper 2022–2025. As with Aotearoa New Zealand, several Australian universities have now appointed First Nations deputy vice chancellors or pro vice chancellors onto their senior leadership teams. Most universities now include centers or departments to support First Nations staff and students. Increasingly, these centers also provide training for non-Indigenous staff in how to decolonize their research and pedagogies. My own faculty at UNSW Sydney houses Nura Gili (Place of Fire and Light), the Centre for Indigenous Programs, which devised and designed an extensive, two-stage “Cultural Reflexivity” course, mandated for all academic and professional staff in the faculty in 2021 and 2022. The course, like others across the country, was developed by First Nations staff and students and addresses many issues of pedagogy, including content and delivery, the potential complexities of tutorial discussion, and standpoint theory. Courses such as these across the country undergird current decisions regarding the decolonization of English literary studies and creative writing courses and inform the discussion here (Reference Collins-Gearing and SmithCollins-Gearing, Brooke and Smith).

Colonization to Decolonization

For Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand, the timing and context of their discovery and invasion by the British established “the colonial legacies and entanglements of particular places and literary communities at particular historical junctures” (Reference Etherington and ZimblerEtherington and Zimbler 229). As Paul Sharrad notes, Australia was the last of the “new worlds” discovered by Europeans, bookending the Columban discoveries of the Americas (Reference Sharrad“Countering Encounter”). Australia’s First Nations peoples comprise the oldest continuing culture on earth, having occupied the full land area of 7,692,024 km2 and surrounding waters for approximately 60,000 years. The documentary First Australians describes the 1788 invasion as the event when “the oldest living culture in the world [was] overrun by the world’s greatest empire” (Blackfella Films, 2008). At the time of invasion, there were approximately 250 different First Nations language groups across the country, with many additional dialectical variations (Reference LeaneLeane, “Teaching”). It is estimated that 120 languages were spoken in 2016, and a 2019 study estimated that 90 percent of the languages are endangered.15

The terms of the Australian invasion and occupation were/are unique. As Stuart Macintyre summarizes: “In striking contrast to its practices elsewhere, the British Government took possession of eastern Australia (and later the rest of the continent), by a simple proclamation of sovereignty” (Reference Macintyre34). This occurred according to the Roman law of res nullius, that is, the assessment that the land was not properly owned (cultivated) by the First Nations peoples (Reference FitzmauriceFitzmaurice). The attendant assumption was that the Aboriginal peoples were not sufficiently civilized to enter into trade agreements or treaties. The terms of this proclamation and the denial of Aboriginal sovereignty and humanity continues to ravage Australia, especially its First Nations peoples. This shameful distinction is not widely understood by non-Indigenous peoples in Australia and needs to be discussed in teaching First Nations literatures. As Mununjali Yugambeh poet Ellen van Neerven writes in their poem “Invisible Spears” (Reference Fitzmaurice74):

you don’t want us protecting
our land like the Māori
that means it was our land to protect
we don’t need
a haka of whitefullas
just let us resist

And so, in their 2020 collection Throat, van Neerven addresses the absence of a treaty in terms of authorship, publication, and reading (62):

Who is the custodian of this book?
            How do we co-exist on this page?
            How can we re-imagine custodianship?
            Is this an agreement or a series of
unanswered questions?
            Are you willing to enter an agreement that is
incomplete and subject to change?

The British invasion and usurpation of Australia in 1788 marks the beginning of Britain’s second empire, which paved the way for its “Imperial Century” (1815–1914) (Reference ParsonsParsons). It was motivated by the perceived need to establish a penal colony after the loss of American colonies in 1783. Hence, from the outset, colonies in New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land (now lutrawita/Tasmania) and later Queensland and Western Australia were based on forced migration, harsh conditions, unfree labor, and imprisonment. These beginnings instilled a great and continuing distrust of (British but also general) authority amongst large elements of the settler population, which marks a significant cultural difference between the cultures of Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand.

The First Nations people of Aotearoa New Zealand, the Māori, first settled the country between 1320 and 1350, having navigated the Pacific tides west from Polynesia (Reference Mafile’o and Walsh-TapiataMafile’o and Walsh-Tapiata). This makes Aotearoa New Zealand the youngest country on earth. While English is the lingua franca, te reo Māori was recognized as one of the nation’s two official languages in 1987. There are dialects within te reo Māori, but the one language is understood by Māori speakers across the country. Perhaps the greatest distinction between Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand in terms of decolonizing imperatives is the Treaty of Waitangi. The British colonization of Aotearoa New Zealand, which began in the early nineteenth century, was formalized by the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, signed by the British Crown and Māori chiefs (rangatira) from Aotearoa New Zealand’s North Island. This agreement, which is bilingual, contains some key differences between the English and te reo Māori versions. It grants governance rights to the Crown while Māori retain full chieftainship of their lands. It also gives Māori full rights and protection as British subjects. However, disagreements regarding the respective claims of sovereignty caused wars and hostility between Māori and Pākehā for the next 150 years. This legacy remains highly problematic.

The Treaty of Waitangi – despite its many problems and ambiguous status – established a contractual relationship between colonizers and colonized that recognized Māori priority and, with contention, ongoing sovereignty. Aotearoa New Zealand was conceived of as a bi-cultural society. This is not to deny the genocidal policies inflicted on Māori. None of the Australian colonies, nor the federated nation of Australia from 1901, have ever developed such treaties. Those Australians who are not Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders are, therefore, living on lands that were never ceded to Britain. There have been numerous calls for a treaty in the last three decades (“The Barunga Statement”). The Treaty of Waitangi is often invoked as a possible model for Australia as it negotiates the instantiation of a formal recognition of First Nations’ primacy, called “the Voice,” into the federal constitution (Reference O’SullivanO’Sullivan). This was a charged issue in Australia’s federal election in May 2022, and there may be a national referendum to decide on the Voice in 2023. The Voice is a predicate of decolonizing the Australian polity.

Decolonizing Whiteness

The colonial regimes of both Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand effectively implemented immigration policies to ensure the dominance of White populations. The impact of these policies is still current and a vital issue in the decolonizing of literary studies. The White Australia Policy, formalized at Federation in 1901, was not fully dismantled until 1973, and Australia followed Canada in formally adopting a multicultural policy in 1978, the terms of which constitute a concerted “repudiation” of former policies. Aotearoa New Zealand’s colonial government also implemented policies to ensure White immigration, including legislation that limited Asian immigration and inhibited Asian peoples’ capacity to naturalize as citizens (“Chinese Portraits”). These racist policies have diminished since the 1970s, and many Pasifika peoples in particular have migrated to Aotearoa New Zealand from that time, as well as an increasing number from more diverse homelands. This “Whiteness” excluded all but Anglo-Celts and some northern Europeans. Its legacy also creates tensions between the postcoloniality and multiculturality of these places (Gunew). Any decolonization needs to negotiate this complexity, which is integral to addressing historical and current racism.

Pedagogical Strategy 1: Decolonizing History

The dates of Australian and New Zealand’s colonization coincide, inter alia, with the development of a new historical consciousness in Western thought, including Kant’s thesis on Universal History and Herder’s theory of historical equilibrium, both published in 1784 (Reference KantKant; Reference HerderHerder). The encompassing, advancing sweep of Universal History authorized the “civilizing mission” of colonialism and relegated First Nations peoples to prehistory and/or the genocidal implications of universal progress. Jeanine Leane writes: “I am a creative writer of poetry and prose and am driven to write, as I believe many Aboriginal authors are, because I have always been positioned on the other side of history” (Reference LeaneLeane, “Teaching”). Leane’s guidelines for decolonized and Indigenized pedagogies in Australian literature include addressing the multiple problematics of history.

One of the main strategies Leane advocates is the reinclusion of the histories and experiences of First Nations peoples, whether we are teaching Australian texts by First Nations writers, settler-culture writers, or newer migrant writers. In all these contexts, Leane argues, the continuing presence of First Nations needs to be reinserted.16 When there are no First Nations characters in the fiction or poetry, which is common, she directs us to identify the lands on which the texts are set, immediately identifying the erasures that provide the ground for settler writing. Instancing narratives of the nineteenth-century gold rushes, she asks: “On which Aboriginal lands did the many Australian goldfields lie? Who were the traditional custodians before the lands were mined for profit from which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people never benefitted?” (Reference LeaneLeane, “Teaching” 7). Discussing texts published more recently, Leane directs teachers to “familiarise students with the historical context of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (1987) and the High Court’s decision on the Mabo case (1992)” (“The Mabo Case”) as crucial historical events in the colonized history of First Nations peoples.

Finally, Leane points out the need to teach the different experiences of colonization across the country. Some areas of the central Australian desert were deemed uninhabitable by Europeans until the 1920s – an irony given that the Arrernte people have lived there for tens of thousands of years. From the 1920s, miners and pastoralists made further ingressions into the Australian continental center, effectively staging a second era of colonization (Reference RobinRobin). This experience contrasts starkly with the experience of the Palawa people of lutruwita (the island state of Tasmania), who were killed en masse in the 1820s and 1830s. Given such a vast land area and so many First Nations peoples, history across Australia is not synchronous or consistent.

A number of the novels of Noongar17 writer Kim Scott engage with archives: both the cultural heritage of the Noongar people and the archives of government records. Scott’s essay, “A Noongar Voice: An Anomalous History,” provides an account of the difficulties and pain of these processes. Specifically, he documents the difficulties of locating any “voice” of First Nations peoples in official records alongside the erasure of Noongar modes of memorializing experience. The latter was accomplished through government policies of cultural destruction, including the removal of children from their families. Hence, he finds a double erasure; there is little history in either archive. However, he persists with both processes and continues to see the value in conventional research for its capacity to affect the present and future: “that was my concern, researching a novel: not what was, but what might have been, and even what might yet be” (Reference ScottScott 103).

One of the most striking aspects of contemporary First Nations writing for non-Indigenous Australians is the manner in which the texts sustain people’s simultaneous histories in the constructions of world and being: the ontologies and deep time of traditional culture and country and those of European modernity and colonization. The decolonizing of Australian literature requires acknowledgment of this complexity, by which First Nations peoples have negotiated two vastly different, even incompatible realities. Chapter 1, “From Time Immemorial,” of Alexis Wright’s award-winning novel Carpentaria (2006) juxtaposes these histories.


(1; capitalization in original)

And then the text shifts from the time of the nation state to time immemorial: “The ancestral serpent, a creature larger than storm clouds, came down from the stars, laden with its own creative enormity” (1). The collision of these ontologies is intolerable for the traditional owners of the Gulf country, as the narrative starkly rehearses. However, the novel also shows how colonization – a glitch within time immemorial – is comprehended and eclipsed by this deeper history and understanding. Any deficit resides with the settler culture whose understanding is limited to the confinements of Western modernity and World History.

The first published novel by a Māori woman, Patricia Grace’s Mutuwhenua: The Moon Sleeps (1978), follows the narrator’s negotiation of these conflicting histories, temporalities, and their attendant ontologies. Throughout the narrative, Ripeka’s literal touchstone is the shared meaning of a sacred and valuable stone, which she and others find as children and which is returned by her family to the gully of the ancestors as its right and proper place. The collective belief in the rightness of this action organizes the coordinates of time that Ripeka sustains alongside those of White Western New Zealand. Ultimately, she decides that her new baby will not be raised by her and her Pākehā husband but by her extended Māori family. Her husband needs to accept the rightness of what he cannot fully share or understand.

Pedagogical Strategy 2: Decolonizing Literary Histories

In the entanglement of literary and political history, the time of the colonization of Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand also coincides with the publication of the first Bildungsroman, Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, which was begun in the 1770s and published in 1796 (Reference GoetheGoethe). As Peter Pierce claims, the account of Australia’s literary maturation came to be seen as inseparable from Australia’s political, national maturation according to this literary-historical Bildung (Reference Pierce and Hergenhan82). It is a connection that is rehearsed throughout Australian fiction from the first novel by the convict Henry Savery in 1830 to the present.18 This network of progress narratives affects much if not all of the English literary curriculum but is of particular significance to Australian literature and its literary histories, given the enduring compaction of narratives and events, including colonial invasion and narratives of individual (and corrective penal) transformation.

Historically – for the purposes of this discussion, at least – English literary studies in Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand can be viewed in four stages. First is the establishment of “English” as part of the broader process of the rise of English literary studies, and as a strategy and effect of British colonialism. The first New Zealand Professor of Classics and English Literature and Language was one of the first three appointments upon the founding of the University of Otago in 1869, Aotearoa New Zealand’s first university. The first Australian Chair of English Literature and Language and Moral Philosophy was created in 1874 when the University of Adelaide was established (Reference DaleDale 42–44). The second stage marks nationalist turns to the settler literatures, or what Robert Dixon refers to as “periods of nation-centrism.” Regarding Australia, Dixon writes:

In Australian literary history, there have been two periods dominated by the epistemology of nation-centrism: the period of Federation, from 1880–1920, and the period from the second world war to the Bicentenary, from 1945 to 1988, when Australian literature was established as a discipline.

This latter period produced many histories of Australian literature, and the first Chair of Australian literature was established at the University of Sydney (1962), in response to public advocacy. (This Chair was not filled after the retirement of Professor Robert Dixon in 2019.) The Association for the Study of Australian Literature was established in 1977, an offshoot of SPACLALS discussed above, “to encourage and stimulate the writing and reading of Australian literature and the study of and research into Australian literature and Australian literary culture.”19

In his 2007 history of Aotearoa New Zealand literature, The Long Forgetting, Patrick Evans recounts the formation of a similar period of nation-centrism in the 1930s.20 The accepted account is that New Zealand literary cultural nationalism can be historicized around The Phoenix, a small four-issue Auckland University College student journal published 1932–33, whose contributors, James Bertram, R. A. K. Mason, Allen Curnow, Charles Brasch, J. C. Beaglehole, and A. R. D. Fairburn, together with Frank Sargeson, went on to dominate New Zealand literature until the 1970s (Reference SchraderSchrader). The first journal dedicated to the “criticism and scholarship” of Aotearoa New Zealand literature, Journal of New Zealand Literature (JNZL), was published in 1983. In his editorial for the first issue, Frank McKay justifies the publication on the basis of an increasing awareness of the national literature. He notes that all six (at that time) universities teach the national literature “as a distinct and significant area of study” (Reference McKayMacKay 1). The journal includes two parts: the first provides summaries of new poetry, fiction, criticism and drama, and the second comprises five critical essays. Sebastian Black’s summary of new drama for 1983 is significant in relation to the current discussion in that he notes that many New Zealanders in 1983 were outraged at the very idea of a national theater (as opposed to performances of British and North American plays) (Black). However, he also records that there were also those “who struggled to create a theatrical environment in which indigenous work might flourish” (Reference BlackBlack 1). The five critical essays are notable in that three engage with work by Pasifika and Māori writers (Alistair Campbell and Witi Ihimarea and waiata aroha [Māori love poems]).

It is this stage of nation-centrism that most clearly announces the connection between Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand as “second-world” societies, as each exhibits their ambiguous status of being “both imperialised and colonising” (Reference LawsonLawson). For the desire to speak of local experience and to record the difference from Britain was championed as an anticolonial development. However, very few First Nations writers were included in the constitution of this difference. What appears clear from 2023 is that the ongoing need for settler cultures to attest maturity and attainment was enacted along the White mythologies of colonialism.

Māori/Pākehā writer and academic Tina Makereti illustrates the effects of this thinking. Her first diagram (Table 4.1) sets out how Māori literature is positioned in syllabi according to colonial periodizations and nation-centrism. She proceeds by offering two alternatives, in which she sets out a “Whakapapa [genealogy] of Māori Literature.” Her final diagram (Figure 4.1) recognizes the linearity of generation but also captures interrelationality, for – as she writes – “culture is always in flux, and colonisation – and the ongoing process of colonisation – shapes, limits, distorts and shifts how we know and tell our own stories. We are constantly spiralling back to reconnect and re-enact that whakapapa.”

Table 4.1 Māori literature in a conventional syllabus of Aotearoa New Zealand literature

Figure 4.1 Whakapapa [genealogy] of Māori literature

Makereti’s reconfiguration highlights the profound differences between Western and Māori conceptions of time and history, especially the telos of modernity and “universal history” by which Māori people only come into (literary) being in the 1970s and then only according to the criteria of conventional canonicity.

Makereti’s alternative whakapapa offers tangible ways of decolonizing the problem of linearity, history, and literature. A colleague and I who teach an Honours Year module on writing the world will alter the offering according to her model. We have taught the course as a dialogue between John Donne’s poetics of discovery relative to European colonialism and Shirley Hazzard’s 1980 novel of the post-War globe, Transit of Venus, whose title links the narrative to Cook’s discovery of Australia. The course thereby connects a seventeenth-century English poet with a twentieth-century Australian expatriate novelist. However, heeding Leane’s call to reinstate the erased First Nations peoples and Makereti’s disruption of literary genealogy, it is clear that we need to include Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria, discussed above in this module. Understood according the Makereti’s literary model, Wright’s Carpentaria both predates and postdates Donne and Hazzard.

The third stage in the development of English literary studies in Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand dates from the 1980s in both countries and reflects the importance of postcolonial studies and then, more problematically, of “World Literature” and multicultural literatures to literary studies. Deploying Dixon’s useful schematization of literary scale, which he bases on the location of each text and the various spaces of its readerships, we can see the ways postcolonialism expanded or multiplied the relationships of these two national literatures, though not necessarily in the same ways and certainly not in relation to each other. Perhaps because of the issues of scale, there has been a consistent tendency of each to read and compare their national literatures alongside other postcolonial contexts from much further afield, especially Canada, the Caribbean, South Asia, and Anglophone Africa. For Aotearoa New Zealand, there is also the additional sense of their interconnections with Pasifika countries. The focus and scales proposed by “World Literature” claim very little interest in the Global South and certainly not in Oceania.

The category of “postcolonial” can be fraught in “second-world” societies such as Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand for First Nations peoples because of its perceived potential to erase the ongoing practices of the “second” or ongoing settler colonization and to merge the First Nations with settler subjects as fellow “colonials.” The concept and practices of decolonization, the fourth and current stage, have the potential to clarify the perceived problematics of the “postcolonial” in three main ways. The first is the identification of colonizing practices as ongoing and active rather than as historical occurrences. Secondly, the active element signaled by the prefix de in decolonization, stresses the active intervention into and against an identified reality. In Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand, this means that the researcher or teacher must declare their own standpoint and its implications. The third shift relates to the reach of the term, which extends from the structures that underpin social and cultural institutions to everyday activities and interactions (Reference Elkington, Jackson and KiddleElkington, Jackson, Kiddle, et al.). Most literary studies students in Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand understand the decolonization of literary courses as part of this larger sociopolitical movement, which is tangibly supported by their institution of study – which is not to deny ongoing inequities. Nor is it a metaphorization of decolonization, though its potential diffuseness needs to be addressed and discussed with students so that its specific histories and contexts are not lost (Reference Tuck and YangTuck and Yang).

In disciplinary terms, too, the initiative of decolonization functions as a more comprehensive imperative. While some institutions in both Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand included multiple courses framed by postcolonial perspectives in the 1990s and early 2000s, most faculties usually only had one or two courses dedicated to literature in English outside the canon of English and (White) North American writing: one on the national literature and one on Anglophone postcolonial literature. In the majority of institutions, the postcolonial intervention, along with the literature of settler “national” intervention, which promoted courses on the literature of Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand, was introduced into the curriculum without significant disruption to the canon. Courses on Shakespearean drama, Romanticism, or Modernism remained largely unchanged. Decolonization, however, comprehends the entire curriculum. In Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand, the decolonizing process is understood as necessary for all courses and all pedagogies.

Pedagogical Strategy 3: Rethinking Written and Spoken Languages

One of the most basic issues for decolonizing literary studies in Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand is the relationship between written and spoken language. As Rosemary Salomone observes in The Rise of English, colonization was driven by the ethos of “one nation, one language,” or one empire, one language (Reference Salomone15). The great number of Indigenous languages in Australia, spoken by small groups of people, stands in contrast to the shared language of te reo Māori, though R. M. W. Dixon’s research identifies common features across many of Australia’s original languages (Reference DixonAustralian Languages). In both countries, however, language, culture, and country are equally inseparable.

All 250 of the languages of First Nations Australians and the various versions of te reo Māori were oral rather than written languages. The original transcription of languages into Latin script was undertaken by early colonials and missionaries in these countries and many others across Oceania. A solely oral language is not an inherent cultural deficit. Rather, language did/does operate within the interrelationship and immanence of country and culture, past and present. The Meriam linguist Bua Benjamin Mabo, from Australia’s Torres Strait Islands, writes: “Keriba gesep agiakar dikwarda keriba mir. Ableglam keriba Mir pako Tonar nole atakemurkak” (The land actually gave birth to our language. Language and culture are inseparable). So, too, recent studies reinforce the particular relationship between land, language, and well-being for Māori people (Reference Matika, Manuela, Houkamau and SibleyMatika, Manuela, Houkamau, and Sibley). Dispossession, forced removal, and colonization have had profound and particular consequences for the interconnections of language and culture. Decolonizing approaches to the fundamental issue of language include the contextualization of written and oral literatures and their respective capacities and intensities through the inclusion of spoken, sung, and performed texts alongside written texts. Tina Makereti’s critique of conventional literary periodizations (above, Reference Makeretip. 000) highlights the misconceptions that arise from a solely scriptal criterion, which presents First Nations peoples of Australia, Aotearoa New Zealand, and the Pacific as having no poetry, drama, or storytelling prior to colonization and their induction into Western modes of representation. As this is clearly untrue, the criteria must be rethought and expanded to include inter alia the particular forms of immanence that connect country and culture and cultural expression. This perspective also casts light on the separation and disembodiment that occurs with scriptal records and representations and enables comparison of ontologies of memorial continuance and the archival memory-shelf of the written text.

This defetishization of the written text needs to be kept in balance with the achievements of First Nations writing in more recent times, so that questions of the flow between ancient and modern modes are considered while the leap into the scriptal mode and, most often, into the language and forms of the colonizers, is also recognized and traced. These discussions are usefully mapped according to the range of continuities and discontinuities of history and of the individual writer and consider the range of work up to contemporary experimentalism and narratives focused on contemporary urban life.

There is also an expanding body of collaborative work that involves translations from First Nations languages into English and vice versa. The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) provides a detailed list of many of these texts, as does the National Library of New Zealand.21 It is also possible to access recordings of singing with text in both the original language and English, with some also including performances. The official recordings of the glorious Yolngu musician Gurrumul are available on the Internet.22 Also, the contemporary singer, Gamilaraay and Birri Gubba man Mitch Tambo, has recorded one of Australia’s unofficial national anthems, “You’re the Voice,” in Gamilaraay language and including the wide diversity of Australia’s people.23 Ngā Hinepūkōrero, the Spoken Word Collective, moves between English and te reo Maori.24

Students respond very well to song and performance poetry, and it is a form that sets up traditions and connections outside the English literary canon. They also have access to the work via the popularity of slam poetry more generally. Throughout Aotearoa New Zealand and the Pacific, and increasingly in Australia, performance poetry has become a powerful form where traditional performance meets contemporary poetics of critique (Reference Stavanger and Te WhiuStavanger and Te Whiu). The spoken word poetry of Selina Tusitala Marsh, the first Poet Laureate of New Zealand (2017–19), is a great exemplar of these interconnections. Her performance of her poem “Unity” at Westminster Abbey for Commonwealth Day in 2016 harnesses this raft of traditions and techniques to deliver a stinging critique of Pacific colonization.25 This newly animated genre is also thriving in Australia amongst First Nations poets including Djapu social activist and writer from Yirrkala in East Arnhem Land Melanie Mununggurr-Williams, who won the 2018 Australian Poetry Slam National Final with a poem “I Run” that articulates the dilemma of being caught “between a Western white man’s world and ancient Aboriginal antiquity.”26 So, too, the renowned comedian Steven Oliver, of Kuku-Yalanji, Waanyi, Gangalidda, Woppaburra, Bundjalung, and Biripi heritage, has produced performances pieces that invite conversation across communities and also claim a First Nations queer identity.27

Pedagogical Strategy 4: Formalist Analysis and the Question of Value

Ironically, enough, the raft of rhetorical tools within conventional literaryanalysis has a powerful role to play in the decolonizing of critical practices in the classroom when they are harnessed as one mode amongst others for reading First Nations texts. Close readings and formal literary analysis open up many First Nations texts, though its modes may be unfamiliar to some students. Relative to the performance poetry discussed above, for example, a formalist analysis could provide one vocabulary for mapping the networks between speaker, text, and reader/audience that are created by the dynamics of these texts. How does the call to the addressee articulated in a spoken word poem relate to that of, say, oratorical and lyrical apostrophe and their emphasis of the “circulation or situation of communication itself” (Reference CullerCuller 59). To what extent does the Western rhetorical tradition enable ways of engaging with these new Spoken Word texts, and what are the limits of this mode of analysis?

The deployment of rhetorical analysis can be productive also in that it enacts formality, in its other sense of that word, as in ceremony and protocol. It is an act of respect across cultures and traditions and, by the terms of that tradition, accords the work aesthetic value in the conventional terms the discipline (see below, for a discussion of value). In the Western tradition also, the study of rhetoric predates English, as its origins are ancient Greece and Rome, thereby complicating temporality and tradition in productive ways. Of course, the mirror process is also necessary. How might our study of a contemporary spoken word poem about being-in-place alter how we read voice, persuasion, and nature in a canonical text such as Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind”? How might a spoken word poem of expressive intensity shift our reading of the lyric, or of the dramatic monologue?

Teaching Spoken Word poetry often leads students to question the political potential of poetry or of literature and art more generally. How can a poetic act, shared between a limited group of people, bring about social change, which is an integral aim to much of this work? Can words affect “the decision of the judge,” as is the aim of oratorical apostrophe? Did Selina Tusitala Marsh’s performance change the British Commonwealth’s attitudes or policies regarding the South Pacific? These questions are necessary and productive as a decolonizing method. They focus on the diversity of investments from the creators, public performances, audiences, and feedback, building community and resilience and connecting our work in the classroom to these various contexts. These questions of investment, motivation, and effects relate in part to those of literary value. The teaching of Australian and Aotearoa New Zealand literary studies and postcolonial literatures that were based on a canon-forming “nation-centrism” model necessitated frameworks that opened up multiple value systems, which were often new to students and sometimes met with resistance. Students educated via New Critical universalism and an aesthetics of literary afflatus, are ill prepared to approach reading practices that trace cultures coming to writing. Much of the literature of “second-world” societies is not aurified. Students have not heard of the writers or the texts, so they are, at best, considered to be unproven and open for judgment as well as criticism.

In discussions of literary value, it is useful to work with students on mapping the range of values at work across the fields of literary and visual cultures prior to focusing on First Nations texts specifically. The first question might ask what texts warrant inclusion in any literary study. Students can list the range of their own reading and viewing and their different expectations from popular fiction and genre fiction, television series and films, and university syllabi. The list might also include family discourses, text chains, and graffiti. In diverse classrooms such as those of Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand, these lists will include texts from non-English sources. They will also be accessed and experienced in various forms. How do students assess the value of this amalgam? What is the experience of moving across the range of styles and the genres and levels of complexity? How does engagement with one form or mode affect the experience of another? To what extent do they consume and/or create these texts. How does this map read them?

Disagreement is welcome in this discussion as a way for students to experience shared and divergent values according to relative functions and purpose. Students coming to the diversity of First Nations literatures need to respect this range and learn how to articulate its particular location in the literary field. A final note on the question of value, which can be raised in light of the recognition that all literature has demographics and target audiences, is that they may not be the primary readership for the text they are reading or hearing or viewing. First Nations writing in English presumes a settler audience to some extent, but there is, from the outset, a displacement of the primacy of the Western reader. First Nations students will have a very different – and primary – position.

Pedagogical Strategy 5: Research and Citations for Essays

Students often find the limited number of resources about many First Nations writers – or any writers from Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand, for that matter – very challenging, as there is often little critical material. There are key reference books that are readily available, including literary histories and “companions” (Reference Heiss and MinterHeiss and Minter; Reference WilliamsWilliams; see also BlackWords (Teaching) in the AustLit database), and First Nations scholars such as Martin Nakata28 and Linda Tuhiwai Smith (Decolonizing Methodologies). These need to be historicized, but those from the last decade are generally very useful. Jeanine Leane’s pointer toward historical discourses (discussed above,) provides one methodology by which students can contextualize their essays and arguments. The reach of trans-Indigenous approaches may be helpful in this context too, as they assist in breaking down the binary that still privileges settler-culture writing. Chadwick Allen’s foundational text Trans-Indigenous: Methodologies for Global Native Literary Studies is very useful here, and it has been strongly endorsed by Māori scholar Alice Te Punga Somerville. Allen’s more recent essay, “Indigenous Juxtapositions: Teaching Maori and Aboriginal Texts in Global Contexts,” is also very insightful, especially for teachers beyond Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand.

The particular challenges of researching in this field need to be discussed with the students as a particular aspect of decolonized study. Whatever decisions students adopt regarding their approach, it is imperative that they engage with secondary material from First Nations readers and writers. Finally, there may be First Nations students who are confident to follow pathways that may be unfamiliar to the teacher or to other students but will create meaningful and transformative knowledge and methods to literary studies.

Conclusion: Present and Future Challenges

One of the many challenges of decolonizing literary pedagogies in Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand is the maintenance of substantive practices in environments where “decolonization” is often adopted as a veneer of rightful thinking within the endless double-speak which plagues our universities. Right thinking, including decolonization, has been compromised in Australia – and to a lesser extent in Aotearoa New Zealand – by its deployment as empty rhetoric, an item on the checklist for global university rankings. In Australia specifically, this performance of virtue has operated as a blind to obscure the systematic dismantling of Australian working conditions in the academy, the induction of universities into the global labor market, and a reversion to colonial-era class systems.

A second challenge, in the context of the Anthropocene, is the turn to Indigeneity as a solution to the disasters of the environmental destruction and late-modern disenchantment. Non-Indigenous readers and scholars – and I include myself in this reminder – need to approach First Nations literatures, and model for our students, the value of this work on its own terms. To do this, we need to be guided by First Nations writers, academics, and students. Decolonization requires the decentering of authority and accepting the invitation to participate on the limited, partial terms that are yet available. Hopefully, literary studies provides some guidance for this process.

Chapter 5 Genders, Sexualities, and Decolonial Methodologies

Brinda Bose
A Fistful of Critical Lineages

The words I use shift from desire to explore to reflect to question to deconstruct to interrogate to contest to disrupt to hope to decolonise. They are deployed for a specific purpose: to tangle up and tangle down what it means to live and work in-between: on the borders, on the edge, across, through and with difference: alongside knowing, being and doing I describe as intersubjective, intercorporeal, and intercultural. I think these words give me a way into, to inter.

Reference MackinlayElizabeth Mackinlay, Autoethnography, Feminism and Decoloniality

To restore passion to the classroom or to excite it in classrooms where it has never been, professors must find again the place of eros within ourselves and together allow the mind and body to feel and know desire.

Reference hooksbell hooks, “Eros, Eroticism and the Pedagogical Process,” Teaching to Transgress

There is no “object of study” that decoloniality can exhaust. Objects or events will always exceed decoloniality; there is no single method that will exhaust the objects or events. Decoloniality is an option among others.

Walter D. Mignolo, “Reference MignoloOn Decoloniality: Second Thoughts”

This book is an amorous gesture, a dedication to another kind of sexual future. It is an episode of language that reaches for the possibility that something else awaits us. This gesture is a kind of touching, a way of sensing what might flow between us. It is sexual in the queerest of ways, meant to inspire intense feeling rather than reproduction; it is multisensory, asynchronic, polysemous, perverse, and full of promise.

Reference RodríguezJuana María Rodríguez, Sexual Futures, Queer Gestures, and Other Latina Longings

a decolonial perspective on gender means conceptualizing the category of gender as always already trans.

Reference TudorAlyosxa Tudor, “Decolonizing Trans/Gender Studies?”
Literatures, like Genders and Sexualities, Are a Palimpsest

I wish to take from Walter D. Mignolo the call for deconstructing in decolonial mode – “decoloniality shall focus on changing the terms of the conversation that would change the content” (Reference Mignolo and WalshMignolo and Walsh 144) – and run with it via genders and sexualities to think about multiple, daring, trans/gressive methodologies for the English literary curriculum. I am not invested in cancel cultures, and my brief therefore is not to throw out (fictional or theoretical) texts of the West to replace them with those of the non-West; the decolonial method offers possibilities, I believe, to engage with literature historically and geopolitically as well as critically, and in those spaces to attempt to change the terms of interrogation, discourse, and discussion. In giving this essay its title, I wanted to emphasize the plurals – genders, sexualities, methodologies – as I consider plurality the first and necessary expansion that decolonization invites: a sense of breaking open boundaries imposed by the (once) institutionalized and therefore more powerful critical praxis to let in multifarious, conflicted ideas that kaleidoscopically create new and recalibrated patterns of reading and writing.

I take what Walter Mignolo and Catherine Walsh formulate as “pluriversal decoloniality and decolonial pluriversality” (Reference Mignolo and Walsh2), a sense of spaciousness in investigating and engaging with all that has been inherited from modernity and coloniality. I distance myself from those understandings of decolonial practice that seek to discard and replace: for literatures, like genders and sexualities, are a palimpsest, they build on waves of what is experienced and encountered through lineages; there are deaths and memories as well as traces and continuities, and I would want that they all be folded in, for the reading, teaching, and writing experience to be, as Reference hooksbell hooks outlines, exciting and passionate – and as Mignolo insists, exceeding the “object of study.” A palimpsest, to me, does not have a goal of betterment: it is simply a layering of innocence with experience, in which the most recent layer is lost yet again through a covering, but in which all layers can be exposed again to be encountered afresh when unpeeled: there is a telos, but it can also be overturned.

Octavio Paz, in an essay on Jean-Paul Sartre upon his death, writes: “much that he said, even when he erred, seems to me essential. Let me state it differently: essential for us, his contemporaries. Sartre lived the ideas, the battles and tragedies of our age with the intensity with which others live out their private dramas. He was a conscience and a passion” (“Reference PazMemento”). Paz is as forthright about Sartre as he says Sartre was about his ideas and opinions: he does not dismiss Sartre for his erring words but embraces them as essential, and he does not dismiss “passion” in contradistinction to “conscience” but weighs them in together. Paz was an exemplar of the Mexican avant-garde in his poetry and essays and continually engaged with many artists (of the Global North) who are easily dismissed from within fixed frames of sexual morality and aesthetics, such as the Marquis de Sade and Marcel Duchamp. Instead, he retrieved them and held them up to critical light and insight. I would wish to work with this as a decolonial method, to revisit old and new frameworks of genders and sexualities for literary studies via avant-garde modernisms – in themselves an exemplar of the excessively nonconformist. Keeping many thinkers and poets as unruly talismans thrown together in an unruly manner, I want to look at paradigms of gendered/sexual signs to rethink pedagogies and research methodologies for English literature in the Global South: what could be a template to read historically, critically, and imaginatively across and between Western and non-Western texts with an incisive, generous, difficult passion that marks all erotic pursuit as errant and explosive, even the intellectual?

Sukanta Chaudhuri writes in The Metaphysics of Text, “We read texts in more or less stable states captured in time … We can cite those stable states to oppose a more problematized notion of the text, as Dr Johnson refuted Berkeley’s idealism by kicking at a stone. But the text, like the stone, was not always in that state; and its formation can only be explained in terms of other forces and other orders of being” (Reference Chaudhuri4). Indeed, one cannot hope to penetrate any text with some reasonable understanding without the penumbra that surrounds it, an understanding of where it drew its layers of being from, metaphysically as well as physically, and what makes it lodge itself in the present moment with the possibility of dislodgement always already imminent. Alongside I may place Marjorie Perloff’s recent study, Infrathin: An Experiment in Micropoetics, in which she draws from Marcel Duchamp’s Notes on infrathin/inframince (1980), a method of reading where one reads minutely, through marking difference which is “infrathin”: as Perloff interprets it, Duchamp iterates “that the same is never the same, and that hence every word, every morpheme and phoneme, and every rhythmic form chosen makes a difference” (Reference Perloff6). The poet creates relationships – between words, images, contexts – that have infrathin possibilities of difference, and the reader comes to poetry with an eye to telling this difference.

Strung between the vastness of metaphysical forces and orders of being that surround a text (Reference ChaudhuriChaudhuri) and the infrathin difference of micropoetics as a method of reading/writing (Reference PerloffPerloff) lie, I suggest, multiple possibilities of a different, decolonial practice, erotic for being quick with uncontained and turbulent promise. If these two methods – of studying the penumbra, and of diving into the text with a pointed eye that exposes shifting meanings of words and sounds and offers new insights – appear to be contradistinctive, they are meant to be so: somewhere in the chasm that yawns between metaphysics (penumbra) and physics (infrathin) the shadow may lift, if only momentarily, to light up a third possibility of reading.

Walter Mignolo talks of the centrality of knowledge creation, and its locations: “it is composed of actors, languages, and institutions. The institutions involved are mainly colleges, universities, museums, research centers (think tanks), institutes, foundations, and religious organizations” (Reference Mignolo and WalshMignolo and Walsh 143). We are particularly concerned here with institutions of higher education, and pedagogies and curricula for English literary studies – that which is at base a colonial practice. It would be easiest to wish to decolonize it by stripping it of its existence in the Global South, and to replace it with whatever is at the other end of the spectrum, untouched by the experience of the colonial. Is this possible? Can any knowledge be divested of its traces of the past? Should all literatures in English – not to mention critical writing – from the once and future colonizing territories be expunged, and a tabula rasa decolonial script be inscribed solely in noncolonizer/once-colonized tongues? Will the erasure of content erase the terms of the conversation – and how would conversation ensue, from nothing? If literature, and the teaching-learning of literature in the classroom, “must find again the place of eros within ourselves” as hooks sharply admonishes (Reference hooks199), would a homogeneous, secure, shared sense of origin with no fraught histories, located in the comfort zone of the familiar and acceptable, be the best impulse for the erotic?

Mignolo acknowledges three thinkers whose formulations on freedom and coloniality helped him construct his own theory of the decolonial – Gloria Anzaldúa (Borderlands/La Frontera, 1987), Aníbal Quijano (“Coloniality and Modernity/Rationality,” 2007), and Rodolfo Kusch (Buenos Aires, 1962) – to explain why he does not merely discard Western philosophers to replace them with the non-Western (“Reference MignoloOn Decoloniality” 1). Of Kusch, who studied Indigenous thinking of the Aymara population of northern Argentina and Bolivia, he sums up succinctly: “He reversed the geography of reasoning: instead of ‘studying’ Aymara’s thoughts from Heidegger, he interrogated Heidegger through Aymara’s thought” (Reference Mignolo1). In this traffic, Heidegger is not replaced but displaced. To me, this is far edgier in its politics, more erotic if one will, not to bluntly discard the enemy but to insinuate a wedge of suspicion, discomfort, and disentitlement that rocks the boat of power (what Mignolo calls the “colonial matrix of power,” or the “CMP”). And this sharply political displacement can be pushed further, into conversation with both Mackinlay’s living desire in-between, the “inter” – “intersubjective, intercorporeal, and intercultural” (Reference Mackinlay155) – and Tudor’s “category of gender as always already trans” (Reference Tudor238).

Of Being Adrift and Reckless among Many Unknowns

Between inter and trans may fall the shadow: of hanging between, of bridging, or of shifting. There is always a strange tautness, for example, in poetry of the gendered body, about the sexed body – as if the body of the poem is exceeded by the shape of its words, always greater in the imagination before it is confined to a page. Poems of the body in particular seem to speak to each other across distances of space, time, and culture, often at counterpoint, sometimes throwing up uncanny echoes: creating conversations interspersed by shifts and fractures. I was struck by a concretization of this sense while browsing poetry: in an online competition inviting illustrations of poetry, three poems were listed from an eclectic collection of love poems selected and edited by Reference DharkerImtiaz Dharker. The poems, each electric, seemed to shoot sparks at each other when placed in conjunction: John Donne’s “The Good-Morrow,” Emily Dickinson’s “Wild Nights – Wild Nights!,” and Dharker’s own “The Trick.” Competing illustrators vied to come up with visuals for this set of poems, imaging assonances and dissonances, critical and creative minds coming together and pulling apart in this exercise. So much learning and expansion of thought, along with a sense of being adrift and reckless among many unknowns: both are achieved at the same time. This is a livewire method of exploring sexualities – throwing selected writings from varied sources together which exhibit some echoes and overlaps, and reading them closely for all that one may glean of and from them, together and separately, in their expressions and transgressions as well as their histories and geopolitics – and would work well in the literature classroom to shake the teaching-learning experience out of routine explicatory exercises.

From the three poems, I pick some lines to place against each other:

Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown,
Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one.
My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears
Donne, “The Good-Morrow”
Done with the Compass –
Done with the Chart!
Rowing in Eden –
Ah – the Sea!
Might I but moor – tonight –
In thee!
Dickinson, “Wild Nights – Wild Nights!”
In a wasted time, it’s only when I sleep
that all my senses come awake. In the wake
of you, let day not break. Let me keep
the scent, the weight, the bright of you, take
the countless hours and count them all night through
Dharker, “The Trick”

A fascinating map of love, sex, time, space, exploration, dream, and longing emerges from the poems when read with and against each other, in their entirety of course – but even in extracts. From this map, multiple senses of history, geography, knowledge, culture, gender, form, and the imaginations of the three poets – completely distinct in location and age – are extracted, and a cross-section of ideas and expressions around lovers’ bodies across oceans and time derived. Donne, English Metaphysical poet of the seventeenth century, envisions love and the lover’s body in the wonder of exploration and the ultimate discovery of “worlds” in each other. Dickinson, young, isolated American poet of the nineteenth century who was herself “discovered” posthumously, is still communing with the charts and compasses of exploration – a central preoccupation of the Western world from the fifteenth to the twentieth centuries – but rejects them in favor of mooring in the haven of a lover’s body. Dickinson’s distinctive poetic style and form, comprising staccato phrases and hung sentences, exclamation points, capitalization, and the liberal use of the dash that identifies her like no other, puts the similarity with Donne’s immersion in the lovers’ bodies out to sea, marking difference. Dickinson, writing in secret, can afford an abandon in her utterances (even as a young woman reared in conservative New England and schooled in a seminary) that Donne, a scholar-poet, a worldly man of many pursuits, including women, who finally became a dean of the Church of England, would hardly have been inclined toward. Dharker, a British poet of South Asian descent writing from the late twentieth century into the present, returns to the image of lovers at night with a distinct shift in mood and visualities, though the focus still hovers on the body and its sexual gratification. The cadence is more akin to prose conversation, the sexualized images more graphically daring – and yet the echoes with Donne and Dickinson reverberate.

Goaded by the dialogic possibilities of grouping a set of poems to read between and across, I offer three more poems from distant locations and tongues, which are, however, from poets broadly analogous in time. These may seem like collations common enough to world literature courses or anthologies, but my emphasis is on an unworlding rather than a worlding, and it works outside of marking specificities of location, culture, and time to explore forms and shapes of language and meanings that meet and splinter at once; the “penumbra” and the “infrathin” of the text as word. These poems are slotted under modernist to postmodernist/postcolonial in literary histories to provide rich material for a decolonial investigation into poems of/on the body speaking from diverse locations: “Corona” by Paul Celan, “Counterparts” by Octavio Paz, and “The Prisoner” by Kamala Das. While “Corona” is a slightly longer poem, “Counterparts” and “The Prisoner” are four and six lines each; all three focus on a single moment of intense physical togetherness, when the mind strays to hope, longing, fear – despite, or because of, bodily proximity. The first lines of each of the three poems set up the dramatic scenes of encounter:

Autumn eats its leaf out of my hand: we are friends.
Paul Celan, “Corona”
In my body you search the mountain
Octavio Paz, “Counterparts”
As the convict studies
his prison’s geography
Kamala Das, “The Prisoner”

I shall read a single image from each, to then expand into a larger understanding and critical knowledge of each poet’s literary being and oeuvre.

My eye goes down to my lover’s sex:
we gaze at each other,
we speak of dark things
Celan, “Corona”
In your body I search for the boat
adrift in the middle of the night.
Paz, “Counterparts”
I study the trappings
of your body, dear love,
for I must some day find
an escape from its snare.
Das, “The Prisoner”

In immense intimacy, a shadow descends: this is the bare, perhaps incomparable truth of sexual love and longing. Celan, Paz, and Das are avant-garde modernist poets from distant continents, each groping to find words in their own languages of poetry to make sense of this shadow that is an inevitable corollary to desire’s immersion in the body of a lover. The Romanian-born poet in German Celan is known for speaking “of dark things” in the history and politics of the Western world; here it is remaindered to the quietest act of intimate speech, when there is almost no physical space between lovers. Paradoxically enough, this possibility of speaking – especially of “dark things” – when physically intimate or imagining/anticipating intimacy, is what makes such moments memorable, difficult, exquisite. Paz, Mexican poet, diplomat, and literary scholar, steered his poetry around politics and/of sexualities, searching not for moorings but for “the boat adrift in the middle of the night” in the lover’s body: for desire is to lose, rather than find, oneself in the other. A boat adrift invokes the impossibility of language, poignant too for those reading in translation: however close a translation is in letter and spirit, it can only approximate the original.

Searching for a boat adrift in the dark is to search for meaning in what cannot be apprehended; as T. S. Eliot (whom Paz admired greatly) has it in “Reference EliotLittle Gidding,”

Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.

Fellow Mexican critic Ramón Xirau has a sharp comment on Paz’s poetic play: “The poetry of Octavio Paz does not hesitate between language and silence; it leads into the realm of silence where true language lives” (Reference Xirau219). One could propel it further along to think about what Paz does with a lover’s longing to find in the body of the beloved “a boat adrift in the middle of the night”: what, then, is the equivalence of being adrift in a body one is intimate with, if not to be continually lost and searching, continually distanced and desiring? And what does it mean, in the poem, for two lovers’ desire for each other to be couched in two seemingly apposite metaphors from nature – a sun hidden in mountain forests, a boat adrift in the middle of the night – both evocative of a search, perhaps a futile one?

Kamala Das, fiery feminist Indian poet who wrote with equal felicity in her vernacular tongue Malayalam and in English, drives the knife of antagonism deep into the wedge between lovers’ bodies in her short and succinct poem, “The Prisoner,” where she imagines the beloved as a jailer, both from whose confinement and in whose body she must seek escape. The contradiction is as inescapable as the lover’s predicament as “the prisoner”: she must “study the trappings” of her lover’s body closely – seek and find greater intimacy and knowledge in her explorations – so that she can plot her escape from its “snare.” The poem is centered on the line “I study the trappings of your body, dear love” following on “As the convict studies / his prison’s geography”: the extended metaphor of a map (of her prison) runs through the entire six-line poem, a prison that is her lover’s body, which she scrutinizes minutely in order to map a path for getting out. Or so she says. The trap is in the endearment, “dear love,” carelessly appended to an apparently dire pronouncement; it balances the “snare” as Celan balances speaking of “dark things” with the line that follows it in “Corona” – “we love each other like poppy and memory” – and Paz has two perfect images for the two lovers, of traveling the body in four lines: one searching “the mountain / for the sun buried in its forest” and the other for a boat adrift on the water in the middle of the night.

This journey across poetic triads in languages, time, space, silences, and images that echo and separate, takes us around again to Reference MackinlayElizabeth Mackinlay when she talks (quoted in the chapter epigraph) of finding “a way in, to inter” via decoloniality – albeit in the discipline of ethnomusicology – as the route she traces is one that can well be borrowed or stolen for literature: “to tangle up and tangle down what it means to live and work in-between: on the borders, on the edge, across, through and with difference” (Reference Mackinlay155). A singular way to decolonize is clearly to upset the applecart of established teaching-learning frameworks that categorize and separate writers into boxes that cannot be messed with or tangled up. The politics of genders/sexualities point us to a very basic principle of deconstructing immovable frames: that they must be tangled up and tangled down and shifted around so that their paradigms are shaken and stirred, to fall into new and changing patterns of perception and knowledge. To be decolonial, one must not be afraid to sail into territories marked different – for difference, as Mackinlay quotes French feminist thinker and theorist Hélène Cixous, is the word that everything comes back to, in the end (Reference Mackinlay156). To decolonize is to inter, to find one’s way into established and bounded texts and categories, and as genders are and sexualities do, tie them up and tie them down, into and out of knots of one’s own intricate making. What emerges at the end is an untying and an unknotting that disinters and discombobulates even as it produces new substances of wonder and curiosity.

Queer Method: “Sexual in the Queerest of Ways”

My interest in the decolonial is located in the boiler room of methodologies, where ideas about approaches bubble and steam – in Mignolo’s pluriversal mode, as claiming a single efficacious method to “do” decoloniality would overturn the premise of heterogeneity and difference in which I have a critical stake – what one could call, in shorthand, genderqueer methods of doing the humanities. In a warm and generous call for new “sexual futures” spun by “Latina longings,” Reference RodríguezJuana María Rodríguez opens her book by defining it as “an amorous gesture,” and a queer one: “This gesture is a kind of touching, a way of sensing what might flow between us. It is sexual in the queerest of ways, meant to inspire intense feeling rather than reproduction; it is multisensory, asynchronic, polysemous, perverse, and full of promise” (Reference Rodríguez1). There is little that can be stable and conserved amid such immense fluidity, polysemy, perversity: it can only upend and turn the expected around, and then around again, till one’s known universe is trembling on the verge of endlessly new births. Suniti Namjoshi, feminist fabulist, had mocked our known universes thus:

“And then, of course,”
she was saying,
“we have grown so great
that now we dream
only of the possible.”

Namjoshi was among the first known queer poets to venture into impossible territories for her poetic form, and her feminist fables opened up a new vista for poetry and prose from the then fairly young stables of Indian English writing in the late decades of the twentieth century.

It is necessary and important to distinguish between queer methods for the social sciences and the humanities, as queer aesthetics have a playing field that is quite unique, allowing im/possibilities of form and content that are factored in by the freedom of creative imagination and impelled by the need, if not demand, to be always already different. In a special issue of the WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly in 2016 titled “Queer Methods,” its editors Matt Brim and Amin Ghaziani begin their introduction by claiming a space for method over theory (“Queer studies is experiencing a methodological renaissance. In both the humanities and the social sciences, scholars have begun to identify research protocols and practices that have been largely overshadowed by dramatic advances in queer theory” [Reference Brim and Ghaziani14]) and then go on to trace the reluctant recognition of “queer methods” in the broad disciplines, together and separately. As Brim and Ghaziani posit, it was not as if the early scholars who worked toward establishing gay and lesbian studies were not using queer methods, but that they were chary of delineating them as such as “that might have threatened queer theory’s constitutional claims to inter/antidisciplinarity” (Reference Brim and Ghaziani15). Along with a nascent queer method, there appeared to be an “overriding queer suspicion of method … Framed as a watershed … queer theory could then do new intellectual work: work unrestrained by identities, disciplinarities, and traditional methods” (Reference Brim and Ghaziani16). However, as they note, this was an overwhelming paradox, for queer theory’s use of self-narration/self-invention was nothing if not a methodological intervention and inquiry.

More recently, this wariness about claiming a method for queer academic work has waned, and along with this, perhaps, the distinction between methods for the social sciences and the humanities has become clearer. In the social sciences, queer methods reject empiricism as ultimate knowledge and generalizations as unviable, giving space to subjective narratives and embracing “multiplicity, misalignments, and silences” (Reference Brim and GhazianiBrim and Ghaziani 17). In the humanities, Brim and Ghaziani write, the changes have been manifold, coming from multiple quarters – feminist/queer, trans, non-White and non-Western – introducing distinctly resistant and intimate archival/imaginative methods of doing queer scholarship to the Anglo-American origins of LGBTQ studies. Reference Brim and GhazianiJuana María Rodríguez offers a felt account of these, and also other, winds of change in her book that explores sexual futures and queer gestures:

Thinking about queerness through gesture animates how bodies move in the world, and how we assign meaning in ways that are always already infused with cultural modes of knowing. The gestures that I take up in this book are about the social and the sexual: the social as that force of connection and communion that binds us to friends and strangers, and the sexual as that tangled enactment of psychic encounters that promise ecstasy and abjection.

The humanities, in not being tied to empirical data and analytics, allows for expansions and contractions beyond the categories of identity catalogued by Brim and Ghaziani – along with agreements and disagreements, shock, surprise, horror, pain, and joy – that can fold into itself what Rodríguez’s gestures call for, multiple entanglements “that promise ecstasy and abjection,” flying above and below singularities of color and community. Many of these entanglements call for comparison, contradiction, resistance, and rejection, along with abjection, hurt, and sadness – through to the other end of the spectrum: ecstasy, wonder, thrill, love, passion, beauty. The humanities is capacious enough to hold these in changing shapes, to examine them and interrogate them, to embrace them or discard them, but always to engage – which is why they do not need to reject any of their pasts or antecedents, but keep them in necessary and critical circulation as they enlarge or shrink their ambit at will, much like the social encounters and sexual entanglements one sieves in the course of living. Brim and Ghaziani reference a range of new critical queer thinking in the humanities, in which Phillip Brian Harper argues for “speculative rumination” making space for “guesswork and conjecture”; Peter Coviello for “long exposure” to texts; Heather Love for “close reading and thin description”; Paisley Currah for a “provisional and generative” transgender feminist methodology that is modeled on gender asymmetry rather than neutrality or plurality (Reference Brim and Ghaziani18–19). Drawing upon these queer methods for literature will mean upending traditional methodologies: not by replacing them, but by accepting the path of “complex returns” to intellectual, social, and political inheritances, and by creating a space of interaction with them for new methods to emerge that will propel conversations forward.

Alyosxa Tudor in “Decolonising Trans/Gender Studies?” makes a brief but remarkable statement that invites the decolonial project for genders/sexualities to recognize gender’s inherent and sustained characteristic of shape-shifting – “a decolonial perspective on gender means conceptualizing the category of gender as always already trans” (Reference Tudor238) – which finds a promising equivalence in literary studies. To conceptualize – understand, recognize, and imagine – the shape of a category of identification as changing, shifting, chameleon-like, is to question the essential nature of that identity, expected to be always already stable. What does this mean for a method of study? It means at base that a queer method should neither seek stability in the representations or discussions of gender that it studies, nor aspire to be stable and unchanging in its ways of apprehending them. “Always already trans” then opens up possibilities not just for the present and future, but also for the past: this is to me particularly significant, for it allows revisits to stubborn pasts that can also now be seen as “always already” shifting and uncertain.

While the dismissal of radical positions that use “a simplistic understanding of sexual violence to legitimize feminist transphobia” (Reference TudorTudor 244) in the West, and some strains of antigender debates in the Global South (Reference TudorTudor 245), are well taken, Tudor clarifies that “trans-ing gender” involves the crucial practice of criticizing and interrupting (Reference Tudor249) dominant Western scripts and methods for doing trans/gender studies – and therefore, not dismissing them to cater to neoliberal academia’s fetishes:

I see the endeavor of decolonizing higher education as a necessarily multilayered and collective process that pays attention to gaps, complex contradictions, and differently positioned complicities. In my view, any decolonization must bridge diaspora approaches with approaches from the global South, connect indigenous studies with migration studies, and question the paradigm of the nation-state. Moreover, feminist, queer, and trans perspectives and their deconstructions of gender and sexuality are crucial for decolonizing epistemologies and spaces.


The assimilation of a new literary curriculum anywhere in the world must be a similar process, accruing to itself multiplicities of content and method, both of which come naturally to gender and sexuality studies. If far more destabilizing queer/trans methods of critical interrogation can be imported into literary studies – those that begin and continue with a strong and clear sense of the various layers that constitute a text, its changing histories, its assonances and dissonances, its own shifts in shape as well as critical and/or resistant responses to it – then a more contemporary and political approach to literary studies via trans-ing is possible. This will be distinct from other methods – such as feminist, Marxist – that also seek to destabilize established structures of power in narratives, by focusing on the body, or shape, of the text, in how words carry (or fail to carry, as Jack Halberstam claims movingly and eruditely in The Queer Art of Failure, Reference Halberstam2011) the brunt of its meanings, and how the text itself is never rigid for its masses of readers across time and space. It is crucial to see instability and uncertainty as richness and depth rather than as shortcomings, in order to embrace the shape-and-color-shifting nature of a text as a characteristic that gives and gives.

Heather Love in her short, succinct essay “Queer Messes,” in the WSQ Special issue on “Queer Methods,” cautions: “Because it is not merely an epistemological conflict, the tension between queer and method can never be resolved. Rather, this tension is material – and here to stay” (Reference Love347). This, I would think, is especially felicitous for a transhistorical, transnational, and difficult matter such as a curriculum for literature, that the tension between identity and method is irresolvable, material, and here to stay. It is the only way into, and “to inter,” as Mackinlay had it, the unruly, transforming realities and fantasies that make up literature, wedging one’s gaze in the “infrathin” difference between uncertain knowledges of the gendered material body that is “always already trans,” and the shifting, textured, layered materiality of the text.


This essay – this text – wishes to be a shape-shifter: to constrict and expand, to engorge and contract, changing through its encounters with various other words and texts, poetic and critical, as it meanders toward this coda – to end by reaching out to touch the symbolic and the elemental. It attempts to challenge the governmental/colonial/institutional/academic sense of how a reading must proceed, how it should set out all parameters of its argument at the start, how it should contain the number of poets it alludes to, how it should explain each line it quotes and reference its referent in the argument – by spilling over its edges, repeating, constricting, layering (like the palimpsest I claimed as a metaphor for literatures and genders/sexualities at the start) – hoping that some thought here, some idea or poetry there, will echo like a footfall in the reader’s vast repertoire of conscious and unconscious readings and experiences. That the exploration of “trans-ing” appears as a late thought in the sequence of writing in this essay about trans/gressive erotic methods of critical reading is deliberate: it wants to be that layer in this essay that is discovered only to uncover those that lie beneath it (of feminist theories of the social, for example), to revisit and revise even as one reads or writes. Trans-ing brings us closer to the body like no other – the body of the self, the lover, the parent, the child, the other, the poem, the word – and keeps us there insistently in its discomfiting materiality of presence, reaching out to nudge and touch us into confronting all that shakes us out of ease. I cannot emphasize enough how capacious and enriching this unease is and must be, and how its failures are as illuminative as its successes: for opening up, for striking down, for unbuilding, for unworlding, for decolonizing those seemingly large boxes within which we are told we must operate in our critical forays into literatures, genders, sexualities.

I will end by lighting a path through a few texts that excavate this body and this touch. Henri Cole, contemporary American poet, writes of sycamores and the burning human body that emerges from and melts into its limbs, “touching across some new barrier of touchability”:

I came from a place with a hole in it,
my body once its body, behind a beard of hair.
And after I emerged, all dripping wet,
little drops came out of my eyes, touching its face.
I kissed its mouth; I bit it with my gums.

Cole makes a series of astonishingly erotic moves between and beyond the human and natural worlds, “I lay on it like a snail on a cup, / my body, whatever its nature was, / revealed to me by its body”: we are not sure what “it” is, but there “was a hard, gemlike feeling … like limbs of burning sycamores.” The approximation, the signifier, the measure of everything that is experienced as bodily sensation, is this liquid and fiery thing, the limbs of burning sycamores. The body inters and trans-es in this one fluid movement. Its beauty is, and shrivels, simultaneously – “I did not know I was powerless before a strange force. / I did not know life cheats us” – but this intensely erotic contradiction is still “touching/across some new barrier of touchability.”

In a study “on touching and not touching” across (old, constructed) barriers of un/touchability between humans alone in a specific historical and cultural context, Aniket Jaaware reads carefully between elements and forms of touch and notes that while elements of touch are common to all touch, “touch, however, has only one form, which is that of contact. It can be seen, we believe, that contact itself is of a two-fold nature: It is the form of touch, and at the same time, the content” (Reference Jaaware21). In social realities, the form and content of touch may diverge to create disturbances and dislocations, while in the philosophical and creative imagination, it is possible for these barriers and fissures to dissolve, engendering new and changing patterns of touch that rarely ossify.

Octavio Paz, in reading the Marquis de Sade philosophically and aesthetically in An Erotic Beyond: Sade, talks of the necessary and “universal dissolution” of erotic barriers between the living and nonliving if one is not to live as an automaton: “There is nothing more concrete than this table, that tree, that mountain … they only become abstract through the force of a will that uses them or a consciousness that thinks them. Turned into instruments or concepts, they abandon their reality; they cease to be these things, but they continue to be things” (Erotic Beyond, Reference Paz53). Paz demurs that the psyche of the libertine treats fellow humans as “erotic objects”: he “does not desire the disappearance of the other consciousness. He conceives of it as a negative reality: neither concrete existence nor abstract instrument … The erotic object is neither a consciousness or a tool, but rather a relation, or more exactly, a function: something that lacks autonomy and that changes in accordance with the changes of the terms that determine it” (Erotic Beyond, Reference Paz54–55).

The changing literary erotic object finally comes to rest in language: language that is inherited and tussled with, like the poet’s inspiration, and language that is elusive and transforming, like the beloved’s, which the poet both touches and cannot ever fully touch. In Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali’s lyrics that give a new embodiment to the ghazal form, the veins of the poet imprison the blood of his poetic ancestor; in turn he transforms his inspiration into another language, trapping form and lineage even while transgressing tongues. In a succession of bodies, poetry enacts a bloodline and its exile at once:

Your lines were measured
so carefully to become in our veins
the blood of prisoners. In the free verse
of another language I imprisoned
each line – but I touched my own exile.
“Homage to Faiz Ahmed Faiz,” 58

Chapter 6 Black British Literature Decolonizing the Curriculum

Ankhi Mukherjee

The pioneering cultural theorist and sociologist Stuart Hall saw in the works of Frantz Fanon, a “re-epidermalisation, an auto-graphy,” a new politics of the Black signifier (Reference Hall and Read27). Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks turns the mechanisms of fixed racial signification against themselves in order to begin to constitute new subjectivities, new positions of identification and enunciation. Speaking at a conference on film, performance, and visual arts work by contemporary Black artists at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), Hall dwells on the “spectral effect,” the ghost of Fanon, the colonial man who wrote for his people. “Rather than trying to recapture the true Fanon, we must try to engage the after-life of Frantz Fanon … in ways that do not simply restore the past in a cycle of the eternal return, but which will bring the enigma of Fanon, as Benjamin said of history, flashing up before us at a moment of danger” (Reference Hall and Read14).

As is widely known, Fanon wrote Peau noire, masques blancs (translated into English in 1967) while preparing for the exams that would enable him to join the august ranks of France’s psychiatric health system. The book came together in Lyon between 1951 and 1952, a period marked by, as his biographer Alice Cherki puts it, “a triple junction” of encounters and experiences (Reference Cherki24). These were psychiatry, his chosen vocation; his discovery of phenomenology, existentialism, and psychoanalysis; and finally, the encounter with a racist White French society and the ways in which Fanon assimilated this experience, both in the army and during his years in Lyon, as a minority and a Black man. The doubt and trepidations of the introduction – “Why write the book? No one has asked me for it” (Reference Fanon7) – juxtapose with the author’s quiet determination that the book will be a “mirror with a progressive infrastructure, in which it will be possible to discern the Negro on the road to disalienation” (Reference Fanon184). Fanon situates the man of color in a world where he is seen, is heard, and is for others. The look of the other, rather than confirming oneself back to oneself, fixes one in a lethal epidermal scheme. Trapped in their respective “Whiteness” and “Blackness,” White settler and Black native create one another without reciprocity. Critics have long noted that Fanon’s reinvention as a Black West Indian occurred only when he arrived in the French capital.1 Here, Fanon had come to realize that volunteerism on behalf of the abstract principles of “freedom,” “France,” or “antifascism,” counted for nothing in the eyes of the majority of French citizens, for whom he remained inferior, inassimilable, nothing but an interloper. At the intersection of colony and the imperial metropolis, Fanon lost the “honorary citizenship” his facility with the French language had accorded him and became an “Antilles Negro” (Black Skin Reference Fanon38).

Stuart Hall, with whose homage to Fanon this chapter begins, is considered the founder of British multiculturalism, Hall was also the first editor of New Left Review and the long-time director of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, the flagship institution of cultural studies in the world (until administrators closed it down in 2002). Born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1932, he came to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar in 1951, ditching it – and his thesis on Henry James – in 1956 to plunge into activism, supporting himself by teaching part-time in the working-class neighborhoods of London. Echoing Fanon in France, Hall liked to say that he realized he was Black only when he arrived in England.2 Like Fanon, he too never went back to the Caribbean after being confirmed in a constituted Blackness. Despite his relatively privileged position as a middle-class Jamaican and Black European, Hall’s lifelong struggle to redress the plight of populations suffering the simultaneous effects of race, gender, class, and migration in multicultural Britain stemmed from the painful realization that race was a great leveler. “There’s not much respect for black PhDs from Oxford,” he said jokingly to the novelist Caryl Phillips in an interview. “People looked at me as an immigrant, they couldn’t tell me apart from another boy just knocking around Notting Hill” (“Stuart Hall by Caryl Phillips”).

While this chapter is not on Fanon, it examines the related dynamic of learning and unlearning – learning to unlearn biased and compromised intellectual formations – in novels of growth or social initiation in African and Caribbean diasporic modernity. I evoke the spectral Fanonism Stuart Hall commemorates to examine Zadie Smith’s negotiations of what Fanon called a “dark and unarguable blackness” (Black Skin, Reference Fanon117). In his influential essay, “Critical Fanonism,” Henry Louis Gates Jr. posits Fanon “as an agon between … ontogeny and sociogeny,” supplementing Sigmund Freud’s conception of human development at the intersection of ontogeny and phylogeny (Reference Gates469). Gates enjoins that we read Fanon, not simply treat him as an icon or screen memory: “It means not to elevate him above his localities of discourse as a transcultural, transhistorical Global Theorist, nor simply to cast him into battle, but to recognize him as a battlefield in himself” (Reference Gates470). Zadie Smith’s corpus testifies to a similar agon between the writer’s prerogative of impersonality and elective affinities and the “dark and unarguable blackness” that relentlessly attaches to raced bodies. The novels and nonfiction ask to be read not as global theory or interventionist polemic but as battlefields in themselves. Reading Zadie Smith according to the terms set up by Fanon and Hall could also be crucial for decolonizing hard-bitten reading habits in the classroom that treat Black literature as interchangeable with Black culture and society. While Smith’s writing of this culture and society is immersive, she routinely and systematically problematizes the category of Blackness itself, as we shall see in what follows.

Unlike Hall and Fanon, Zadie Smith is a girl from the Athelstan Gardens Council Estate in Willesden (northwest London). Born to an English father and a Jamaican mother, she said of her first visit to Jamaica that “I was allergic to everything … I didn’t want to belong to the place” (Reference EugenidesEugenides). Years later, when she traveled to West Africa, she felt unassimilated in an opposite, if equally tragicomic, way. “I was in the middle of what I thought was some kind of spiritual experience in West Africa, this search for my identity. It became clear after the end of quite a long trip that everybody I had been with thought I was white” (Reference EugenidesEugenides). “When I was fourteen I was given Their Eyes Were Watching God by my mother,” Smith writes in the introductory essay of Changing My Mind. “I knew what she meant by giving it to me, and I resented the inference” (Reference Smith3). When her mother prods her to read the book lying unopened on the bedside table, the teenager asks if she is meant to like it just because Zora Neale Hurston is Black. “No – because it’s really good writing,” her mother insists (Reference Smith3). The budding author grows to love Hurston but does so furtively: “I wanted to be an objective aesthete and not a sentimental fool. I disliked the idea of ‘identifying’ with the fiction I read: I wanted to like Hurston because she represented ‘good writing,’ not because she represented me” (Reference Smith7). Zadie can finally out herself as a Hurston reader two decades later, when the world has woken up to the genius of Hurston thanks to biographies, films, and Oprah, and African American literature departments and the publishing industry are invested in reclaiming and constructing the “Black Female Literary Tradition” (8).

Just as it is ideologically flawed to think of literary writing and criticism as universal and isotemporal – this, Smith confirms, is a prerogative of the privileged, a White mythology – she baulks at the fetishization of Black women writers. Hurston had a very difficult life and died in poverty, but Smith would still like to make a case for her greatness that supersedes crude identity politics, including the notion that Black women are the privileged readers of a Black woman writer. “I want … to be able to say that Hurston is my sister and Baldwin is my brother, and so is Kafka my brother, and Nabokov, and Woolf my sister, and Eliot and Ozick,” states Smith, albeit with ambivalence and self-doubt (Changing My Mind, Reference Smith10). While it is hard-won progress that Hurston is no longer a well-kept secret among educated Black women such as the author’s mother, the point Smith forcefully makes in this essay is that overcompensating by splashing her now across curricula needs to lead eventually to a concomitant correction and revision of the very modes of literary and aesthetic reception. In an ideal world, one should have the creative freedom, as readers or literary critics, to gravitate to Kafka, Nabokov, Woolf, Eliot, and Ozick while stating, in the same breath, that Hurston “makes ‘black woman-ness’ appear a real, tangible quality, an essence I can almost believe I share” (Reference Smith13). This chapter dwells on two of Smith’s novels, On Beauty and Swing Time, to elaborate on some of the themes encapsulated in the example from Changing My Mind above: the curriculum and its occlusions and amnesia; Black British writing pitted against a writing that is not delimited by the qualifier “White”; aesthetics versus politics; normative literary criticism and its mistrust of what it perceives to be the narcissism of identity politics; Anglo-American traditions of critique and the civilizational and temporal lag it posits between itself and “black women talking about a black book” (Reference Smith12).

Speaking of the difficulty of establishing a diasporic order of things, Samantha Pinto describes diasporic epistemologies as a “difficult play” between “recognizable forms of being, knowing, belonging, and acting in the world and the new forms that emerge as we try to understand its shifts” (Reference Pinto7). Pinto’s use of “order” refers to Foucault’s 1966 work, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, where he excavates the bases and systematic frameworks of a series of representations in philosophy, natural history, and economics.3 Whether her novels are rooted in Kilburn or they cross continents, it could be argued that Smith is a proponent of dis-ordered writing, one that examines the diasporic phenomenology of being out of place on a temporal, and not just spatial, axis. In this interruption, a belated correction of what Matti Bunzl calls “the enabling temporal formations” of colonial discourse, lies the decolonizing potential of Zadie Smith’s work (Reference Bunzl and Fabianvii).4 In the New York Times interview with Jeffrey Eugenides conducted soon after the publication of Swing Time (Reference Eugenides2016), Smith says that:

what was done to black people, historically, was to take them out of the time of their life. … We had a life in one place and it would have continued and who knows what would have happened – nobody knows. But it would’ve gone a certain way, and we were removed from that timeline, placed somewhere entirely different, and radically disrupted. And the consequences of that are pretty much unending. Every people have their trauma. It’s not a competition of traumas. But they’re different in nature. And this one is about having been removed from time.

The “swing” in Swing Time, Reference EugenidesEugenides observes, is both noun and verb. It refers to the 1936 musical and swing music, seemingly, but enjoins also that we interpret swing not as an adjective defining time but a verb acting on it. Nowhere is this more evident than in Smith’s novels of displacement and disorder, which circle around the twinned foci of social mobility and (higher) learning, in school classrooms and on the university campus.

Class, Classroom, Race Mobility

In Swing Time, the unnamed narrator describes a mad playground game that erupted in her school when she was nine:

It was like tag, but a girl was never “It,” only boys were “It,” girls simply ran and ran until we found ourselves cornered in some quiet spot, away from the eyes of dinner ladies and playground monitors, at which point our knickers were pulled aside and a little hand shot into our vaginas, we were roughly, frantically tickled, and then the boy ran away, and the whole thing started up again from the top.

At first, this seems to be a form of prelapsarian sex play. But as the game continues, and moves into the classroom, a sinister change can be observed.

The random element was now gone: only the original three boys played and they only visited those girls who were both close to their own desks and whom they assumed would not complain. Tracey was one of these girls, as was I, and a girl from my corridor called Sasha Richards. The white girls – who had generally been included in the playground mania – were now mysteriously no longer included: it was as if they had never been involved in the first place.

This is how colonialism enters the novel, not by the narrator’s reanimating its remnants in Africa or the Caribbean but, frighteningly, in her finding its deformations and hierarchies still operative in her classroom in London in the early eighties. The sexual experiments of children are informed by a racial pecking order and undergo a perceptible “blackening” of the game in the shift from playground to the classroom. Somehow her male classmates have understood that it is the brown girls whose knickers can be pulled aside; and it is the brown girls who accept this as a natural order of things, all at an age before sexual role play has become conscious, cultivated, or coerced.

The low educational attainment of Black pupils has been a feature of policy debates and a concern for Black families for several decades. However, as scholars of education such as Nicola Rollock point out in The Colour of Class, there is scant British empirical work that explicitly explores how race and social class jointly shape their experiences. The example from Swing Time enjoins that we add gender to this mix. Policy debate positions Black British families as a homogenous working-class entity, deficient, uninterested, and uninvolved in their children’s education. It is, in other words, the “deficit model” of thinking about education, entertained on both sides of the Atlantic, which presumes, as Robbie Shilliam has argued, that Black families and communities have no cultural capital to gift their children as an inheritance and can only transmit pathological behavior. Shilliam reflects on the low acceptance rates of Black students in “prestigious universities”; the negative experience of university faced by this ethnicity; and the relatively low attainment levels of those who do enter the student population. “Some have explained away these disparities by presuming that Black students arrive at the gates of the university with pronounced social and cultural deficits garnered from their familial and community upbringing – that is, their blackness. I would direct their assumptions back to the image of Stuart Hall studying at Oxford,” Shilliam states (“Reference Shilliam, Bhambra, Gebrial and NişancıoğluBlack/Academia” 59). The racial differentials are produced within the British academy, itself an isomorphism of the society which had created Blackness, as inhering to the Windrush generation and their descendants in Britain, as a negatively defined identity, not-English and not-White. What is missed out in Eugenicist reports of underachievement in British secondary education is what Shilliam calls the “educational maltreatment of … children” pointed out painstakingly by citizens’ groups such as the Black Parents Movement, established in 1975 (“Black/Academia” 59). Both entities in the decolonization debate – those clamoring for decolonization and those jealously guarding their elite cultural privilege – err in not connecting the pinnacle of higher studies at university with the base of the population pyramid, “growing relentlessly blacker, browner, poorer” (“Reference Shilliam, Bhambra, Gebrial and NişancıoğluBlack/Academia” 59).

Studies on the education of the middle classes, on the other hand, focus exclusively on the White middle class, and the ways in which it mobilizes cultural capital strategically for the betterment of offspring. In the Colour of Class, the authors – Rollock, David Gilborn, Carol Vincent, and Stephen Ball – recommend that instead of focusing solely on schools and education policy, we analyze the educational experiences of Black children in the context of their homes, focusing on how Black parents view and interact with schools. Political theorists like Shilliam recommend also that we penalize the monocultural university environment and the raciological thinking behind the conventional curriculum for making deficits where there are none. They point out spaces outside academia where non-White activists, not academics themselves, have chosen to situate their dissent. Smith’s Swing Time, more so than the other sociological fiction she has written, looks at the promise of social betterment as it galvanizes the Black Caribbean middle classes, even as they continue to be positioned as outsiders and imposters in the apartheid of a wealthy neocolonial metropolis. She elegizes the neutralization of this promise beyond the tertiary level and also dispassionately questions the curious self-hatred and social animosity that attaches to the survivor figure of African continental heritage who makes it in predominantly White and white-collar professions.

The most spectacular mobility figure in Smith’s Swing Time is the mother of the nameless narrator. The story revolves around two mixed-race families, converging on the figures of two little tan girls, both living in the council estates of northwest London in the 1980s, one (the narrator’s home) relatively gentrified compared to the other. Neither family is on benefits, despite Tracey’s mother’s numerous attempts to “get on the disability” (Reference Smith10). The narrator’s father is an unwitting poster child of the enervated White working classes; her friend Tracey’s father is absconding, polygamous, and criminalized, a dangerously charismatic man-child, the unlived-out life of whose kinetic energy is expressed in Tracey’s own prodigious enjoyment of dance. Tracey’s mother is “white, obese, afflicted with acne,” her thin blond hair pulled back in a “Kilburn facelift”: the narrator’s mother is a feminist autodidact, a copy of Black Jacobins under her arm (10).

Describing her mother’s plain white linen trousers, her blue-and-white-striped Breton T-shirt, her frayed espadrilles, her beautiful Nefertiti head, the narrator says:

She dressed for a future not yet with us but which she expected to arrive … everything so plain, so understated, completely out of step with the spirit of the time, and with the place. One day we would “get out of here,” and she would complete her studies, become truly radical chic, perhaps even spoken of in the same breath as Angela Davis and Gloria Steinem … Straw-soled shoes were all part of this bold vision, they pointed subtly at the higher concepts.

The mother actualizes the vision only partially, educating herself long-distance and immersing herself in socialist activism before consolidating her considerable rhetorical prowess and populist politics as an MP. She enjoys the incorporation into the socially exclusive meritocracy, but, unlike her daughter, who remains ambivalent till the end about Black Power and White liberal guilt alike, the world remains Manichaean to her. While her mother sanctimoniously talks about “our people,” the narrator hears the “overlapping quack and babble of those birds,” repeating again and again, “I am a duck! I am a duck!” (Reference Smith311). While the mother reads Marx and Frankfurt school, sociology and politics, Hughes and Robeson, the narrator dreams of MGM idols of dance such as the Nicholas Brothers – Fayard and Harold – in midair, doing the splits. She finds, in the school library, The History of Dance, “a different kind of history from my mother’s, the kind that is barely written down – that is felt” (Reference Smith101). She mines the performative transmission of history in dance and music for postpolitical biopolitics, where Tracey’s dad got it – his ability to leapfrog into a split – from Michael Jackson, Michael Jackson got it from Prince, and maybe James Brown, and they all got it from the African American tap-dancing duo, the Nicholas brothers. And Fred Astaire got it from the Nicholas brothers too, blacking up his face to perform the “Bojangles” number in “Swing Time.”

As Taiye Selasi put it in her review of Swing Time, her friend Tracey “is the narrator’s abiding point of reference, the one with the talent, the clarity and the fire.” The narrator’s success, happiness, and her precarious self-situation in the world, whether in relation to the carnal networks of global capitalism or the surveillant networks of new media, are all relative to Tracey. It is Tracey who is the foe of the narrator’s mother, soma to her psyche, village life to her city ambitions, Dionysus to her Apollo. Tracey is the obscure, sidelined genius to the mother’s considerable, if also cultivated and derivative, talent. At the receiving end of a lecture by the narrator’s mother on the history of racial epithets – Tracey had used the word “Paki” at Lily Bingham’s tenth birthday party – she shuts her up with the devastating logic of an upturned chin and “It’s just a word” (Reference Smith82). In a disjointed world, with the grown-ups particularly unaligned with its time signatures, Tracey as dancer “knew the right time to do everything” (Reference Smith26). As in dance, so in storytelling. The girls write stories about ballet dancers in peril, Tracey dictating and the narrator transcribing. “Just as you thought the happy ending had arrived, Tracey found some wonderful new way to destroy or divert it, so that the moment of consummation … never seemed to arrive” (Reference Smith32). The theories of “secular salvation,” as Ashis Nandy terms it, shaping social knowledge in the West – anarchism, Christian socialism, communism, for instance – have little appeal for Tracey.5 Unlike the narrator’s mother, who goes out in a fug of bravery, denial, and delusion, Tracey ends where she begins – in a familiar place and an obdurately unchangeable time.

The narrative unraveling of the Black woman who seemingly has it all is something we have seen in Reference SmithSmith’s 2012 novel NW. I am referring to Keisha, who has survived a childhood in the projects, Kilburn Pentecostal, and Brayton Comprehensive – “some schools you ‘attended.’ Brayton you ‘went’ to” (Reference Smith9) – to rename herself Natalie and become a barrister. Her narrative is the most disjointed of the four parts of the novel, broken into 185 staccato sections, the confessional flow repeatedly thwarted by quiz answers, menu items, and Instant Messaging (IM) chats. “Natalie Blake had become a person unsuited to self-reflection” (252). Natalie’s psychic life suffers equally from the narrative control over it of which she is justifiably proud (her word for it is “time management”) and the panic and rage that is related, no doubt, to her friend Leah’s growing hatred (Leah has stayed much where she was), the emotional abandonment of the natal family that she has left far behind (a professional hazard for the mobility hero), her uncomprehending and infantilized banker husband, and the baffling fullness of motherhood into which she finds herself coerced.

In “Two Directions for the Novel,” Zadie Smith reads Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, an unusual pairing that she herself identifies as “antipodal” and mutually cancelling (Reference Smith and Smith71). She contemplates the “extraordinary persistence” of realist fiction of the Balzac-Flaubert model, “a literary form in long-term crisis” (73, 72), and wonders why American metafiction, once touted as an antidote to realism, has been relegated to a corner of literary history. It is evident in the essay that between the lyric realism of Netherland and the postmodern play of Remainder, Smith would personally authenticate the latter. “If Netherland is a novel only partially aware of the ideas that underpin it, Remainder if fully conscious of its own” (82). However, despite her sharp critique, in essays such as “Two Directions for the Novel,” of the “essential fullness and continuity of the self” (73) that Smith sees as an unexamined credo of traditional realism, her novels NWand Swing Time see closure and completion in uncannily similar terms (namely, the fullness and continuity of the self).

Enraged though she is at the psychological torture her dying mother has incurred in the hands of Tracey, whose barrage of abusive emails to this local politician is also a catalog of pain – child-support woes, rent arrears, skirmishes with social workers, fears of losing child custody – the narrator of Swing Time claims responsibility, not retribution.

There is no case I can make that will change the fact that I was her only witness, the only person who knows all that she has in her, all that’s been ignored and wasted, and yet I still left her back there, in the ranks of the unwitnessed, where you have to scream to get heard.

In both NW and Swing Time, Smith posits individual development as autogenous, while also subsuming its brute solipsistic force in linked chapters, an epic narrative arc, and dreams of the common weal. The seemingly sui generis nature of characters in Swing Time is downplayed by revelations of their fractal nature. The novel throws up new assemblages at every turn: Tracey and the narrator, Tracey and Jeni LeGon, the narrator and Hawa, even the mother and Aimee. Individualism itself is seen as an imported American secular ideology, a hodgepodge of Social Darwinist capitalism, New Age spirituality, and a relentless desire for self-improvement. The “notorious narcissism” (Jennifer Egan’s term) of the Bildung narrative is replaced here by new forms of connectivity, collectivity, cellularity (when each small group in the cell only knows the identities of the people in their cell).6 It seems to say, as Robbie Shilliam argues in “Austere Curricula,” that “the deficit does not lie with Black heritages – familial and community – but in the racist structures that devalue, demean and exclude the sources of cultural capital that Black children carry with them into the classroom” (Reference Shilliam, Jonsson and Willén98). It would therefore be simplistic to read in the worldly protagonist’s return to childish certainties and the council estate, in both Swing Time and NW, a regressive compulsion. If anything, it is a rewriting of the novel of formation as an interminable gestational process, and an acknowledgment of the village that it takes to raise a gifted child.

The Campus Cosmopolis

Zadie Smith’s On Beauty (Reference Smith2005), which a staff writer at the Harvard Crimson said could have been titled “On Harvard,”7 is also about assemblages and a dreamed-for connectedness between the assembled but nonidentical actors. An avowed hommage to E. M. Forster’s Howards End, what draws Smith to the precursor novel of 1910 is, as Christian Moraru observes, Forster’s “relational imagination and, behind it, his uniquely cosmopolitan mindset” (Reference Moraru134). True to this legacy, On Beauty seems to aspire to a world where interpersonal connection is not restricted to the ties of blood, culture, or nation but is overlaid instead with elective affinities, disinterested friendships, or professional loyalties. Forsterian liberalism is layered further in the novel with insights from Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just, a philosophical treatise which gives Smith the title of her novel. In a nutshell, Scarry’s argument is that beauty is a “compact, or contract between the beautiful being (a person or thing) and the perceiver” (Reference Scarry90). The perceiver and the object perceived bestow on each other the gift of life. “Beauty is pacific,” Scarry goes on to say, its live-giving pact with participants one that bestows peace and justice “in reciprocal salute to continued existence” (Reference Scarry107). Smith’s On Beauty examines the connection between beauty and distributive justice in a campus novel where not all bodies can be cosmopolitan alike even in the liberal haven of a twenty-first-century college town, and beauty, instead of repairing existing injuries, as promised by Scarry, becomes an ally of the perpetrators of social and racial injustice.

Dorothy Hale has astutely identified in Smith’s revisionism of Scarry the gap between a philosopher’s treatment of beauty and the novelist’s:

Whereas Scarry seeks primarily to describe “the felt experience of cognition” (3) that unites all human beings of every culture in their experience of beauty, Smith portrays the particularity and contingency of each individual’s apprehension of beauty. And while Scarry aims to enumerate the fundamental qualities of beauty, Smith stresses its relativity and social constructedness.

The relativity and discursive formation of beauty is explored through the vicissitudes of the characters in On Beauty and their individual attempts to comprehend beauty “through private contemplation as well as through acts of social exchange” (Reference HaleHale 815). The “felt experience of cognition” (Scarry’s term) is indissociable from one’s educational advantage and sociocultural location, the novel seems to say. Hale’s phrase “aesthetics of alterity” encapsulates On Beauty’s work of demystifying autotelic responses to beauty; it refers also to the capaciousness and capacity of the novel form itself in representing the lives of others, or the “variety and autonomy of social perspectivalism” (Reference HaleHale 817).

However, while I agree about the Forsterian strain of self-othering and estrangement Smith injects into identity politics in On Beauty, it is limiting and reductive to describe her contribution to the philosophy and phenomenology of beauty as a “novelistic aesthetics of alterity,” as Hale does (Reference Hale816). The allusive and citational structure of On Beauty – Smith extrapolates from a variety of literary and academic genres – troubles the extant distinctions between the anthropological novel, autofiction, cultural criticism, and lyric poetry. The novel posits beauty as socially constructed but undercuts its own truth claims with personal experiences of beauty that are immediate, overwhelming, and too unique or accidental to be reified. This inherent dichotomy is key to understanding the mutually cancelling impulses of Black British writing such as Zadie Smith’s: this fiction may do the work of ideology critique or represent the lives of others, but it jealously reserves the right to be abstract and nonmimetic art, not a communicative form, at times. The work generates its own terms of exegesis, enjoining readers to treat it as literature, not autoethnography, and thereby ushering a process of decolonizing the reading and reception of Black British writers.

Zadie Smith has said in interviews that she came to the undergraduate English degree at Cambridge from a non-academic background. Her adolescent self had immediately associated the university with a salvation narrative that wasn’t dashed to the ground because her college, King’s, was unique in the Cambridge system: “King’s was a real intellectual community; I knew nothing about drinking societies or Blues or banking. Maybe it went on, but I never saw it. To me King’s was one long, invigorating conversation” (“Reference SmithAn Interview with Zadie Smith”). She mentioned in the same interview that without the Cambridge English course, which “started at the beginning and ended near-ish the end,” and the great breadth of novels she read there, she would not have become a novelist: the literary theory and philosophy she studied on the course, in particular, helped develop critical skills lacking from her school education. The fictional institution of Wellington is no King’s College, Cambridge, but we could read Smith’s campus novel as a dreamed-for conversation between outsiders and insiders where the cultural and literary heritage shared between colonial history’s winners and losers assumes recombinant forms.

Ideally, there would be space for deliberate reflection and critical evaluation even in the neoliberal and corporate university, and the principles and aims of higher education would be attuned, not opposed, to liberation and social justice movements gathering momentum outside the classroom. However, as Kanika Batra has persuasively argued, Smith’s treatment of institutionalized Black Studies at Wellington marks a failure, in the microcosm of On Beauty, of aspirations of inclusivity and widening access. “The discipline is presented as disconnected to social reality and actively participating in the perpetuation of social inequality” (Reference Batra1080). Batra disagrees with this skeptical depiction of Black Studies, which occupies a marginalized position in the Anglo-American academy and White liberal arts institutions. She points out that in Britain, especially – and she has in mind Stuart Hall’s monumental contribution to Birmingham’s School of Cultural Criticism and his pioneering of cultural studies in general – the theoretical space of academic discourse was not only coterminous with the vernacular space of Black cultural life, but it actively enabled these elaborations of the vernacular. In fact, Batra implies that a novel such as On Beauty is itself a beneficiary of the legacies of Black Studies and that it showcases some of its ongoing debates: “Smith’s representation of the class specific dimension of the black diaspora through Haitian migration to the US brings to the fore cultural identity, race relations, and economic stratifications – key concerns explored by Black Studies from its inception” (Reference Batra1085).

While Batra’s reading defends the impetus of Black Studies as intellectual and pedagogical as well as political, it also sounds a cautionary note about the limits of “progressive racial politics” such programs stand for (Reference Batra1090). What brings the tenuous link between academic and the social to breaking point in On Beauty is the treatment of Carl, the “street poet” embraced by the Belsey family after they meet him at a free performance of Mozart’s Requiem on the Boston Common. Carl’s inclusion in faculty parties – and his involvement as discretionary student in English professor Claire Malcolm’s class – reveal the savior complexes masquerading as inclusive gestures, even when some of the actors in this campus circus, such as Kiki Belsey or Erskine Jegede, are Black, diasporic, or cosmopolitan themselves. “Are you interested in refining what you have?” Claire asks Carl after his spoken word performance at the Bus Stop, a hub for local artists in Wellington (Reference Smith232). A professor of Creative Writing, Claire is a poet herself, and a teacher and talent scout par excellence. She initiates her students into a dynamic interaction with the canon, not reinstating the hierarchy between the immortals and wannabes but discussing dead poets side by side with student work. She is adept at impressing on her wards the magic of commuting intimate thoughts through the stylized language of poetry, “through rhyme and metre, images and ideas” (Reference Smith259).

Carl’s refinement in her hands is there for the class to see. He had attended his first session with an affected slouch, mumbling his lyrics and reacting in a hostile way to the implication that the rap he was chanting was a poem: “rap ain’t no art form. It’s just rap” (Reference Smith259).

The first thing Claire did with Carl’s rap that day was show him of what it was made. Iambs, spondees, trochees, anapaests. Passionately Carl denied any knowledge of the arcane arts. He was used to being fêted at the Bus Stop but not in a classroom. Large sections of Carl’s personality had been constructed on the founding principle that classrooms were not for Carl.

His historical mistrust of White and elite civic institutions is not unfounded, and we, as readers, had anticipated this. Carl lowers his guard despite his unease with the wave of attention from Claire and her pupils, and in the full knowledge that there was no mobility story unfolding at this institution, where he was not even a registered student. Perhaps it was not a sick joke after all; she wanted him to do well, and he wanted to do well for her. Carl writes the sonnet Claire had repeatedly asked for. He doesn’t think it is great but “everybody in the class made a big fuss like he’d just split the atom” (Reference Smith260). Overwhelmed, he looks at the sonnet on the crumpled sheet of paper where his rap would normally be scribbled, resolving to type the thing out next time if he could get his hands on a keyboard. True to Deleuze and Guattari’s reading of the encoding function of relations of power in capitalism, Claire has decoded Carl – freed him from established codes – only to rebind that energy into “factitious” and self-serving codes.8 On Beauty would suggest that this process of progressive unfixing, rapidly followed by re-inscription into new forms of production and consumption, marks the self-expansion of capital and the capitalist university alike.

Just as Carl is easing into a timid feeling of affiliation to this community of aspiring writers, Claire embarrasses him in front of the whole class by asking if he was serious about the opportunity. “I mean, do you want to stay in this class? Even if it gets difficult?” (Reference Smith261). Carl is tempted to angrily retort but relents to Claire’s conviction that he needed the class. Soon after, Claire would appoint Zora, daughter of art historian Howard Belsey, to speak at a faculty meeting on behalf of Carl and the other unregistered students. The self-styled “communist loony-tune anti-war poetess” Claire Malcolm tells Zora unabashedly that she would ideally send Carl to make his case, but “the truth is these people won’t respond to an appeal to their consciences in any language other than Wellington language” (Reference Smith263). Zora Belsey, who is indeed fluent in Wellington language – and who has long harbored the fantasy of addressing Wellington College faculty with an impassioned speech – falls into step with Claire’s prejudice that Carl doesn’t have a voice and needs someone like Zora, Black but with an enviable pedigree and a level of cultural distinction, “to speak for him” (Reference Smith263). These moments of class differentiation even in Black writing are key to the process of decolonizing the interpretation of Black literature: there is no room for a sanctimonious reading here, and Smith provokes critical thinking on the interrelated issues of race and class or economic and social factors. Carl is betrayed and banished from the diegetic space not by White racism alone but the very proponents of Black meritocracy and a Black public sphere, including the Foucault-reading Zora and her brother Levi, with his faux Brooklyn accent and his hankering after authentic racial identity 200 miles north of Brooklyn.

The Zadie Smith novels discussed in this chapter imagine counterhegemonic spaces of education and Black reading publics transversally, through compromised and corruptible classroom and campus politics. The novels are particularly valuable for questions of decolonizing the English literary curriculum because of the nuanced and ambivalent way in which they use literary lineage to claim a postcolonial literature and culture to come. The themes of these works have a history of mobilizing both sides in the decolonization debate: multiculturalism, equality and diversity, widening access, canon revision, value criteria and aesthetic judgment, aesthetics and ethics. These are novels of ideas punctuated by doubt and guilt surrounding the learned exposition of ideas, an elite prerogative; it is imaginative writing that strays into imaginative activism.

In my interpretation, the implied reader of this body of work is both Carlene Kipps and Kiki Belsey of On Beauty, with their polarity of responses to the painting, “Maîtresse Erzulie,” by the Haitian artist Hector Hyppolite. Kiki is wife of the “Empson Lecturer in Aesthetics” at Wellington College; Carlene is married to Howard Belsey’s nemesis, the right-wing Black Christian Monty, a Rembrandt scholar at the same institution. At the start of this scene, the women act as cartoonish opposites of the academics they are married to. Kiki’s response to art, unlike that of her husband’s, is subjective, wilfully naïve, and blunt. She declares that they have no paintings in the house, “at least none of human beings,” although this is because Howard mistrusts representational art (Reference Smith175). Carlene, on the other hand, offers a feminist deconstructive reading of the Voodoo goddess Erzulie, calling her “the mystère of jealousy, vengeance and discord, and, on the other hand, of love, perpetual help, goodwill, health, beauty and fortune” (Reference Smith175). The naked Black woman in the Hyppolite painting, her “fantastical white space” surrounded by tropical branches, flowers, and birds, functions as a contingency, unexpectedly providing common ground (Reference Smith175). When Kiki trots out a thesis of Howard’s about binaries in metaphysics to impress Carlene, Carlene puts an end to this nonsense by simply and kindly saying to Kiki that she likes Erzulie’s parrots. This momentary truce is a triumph of Forsterian cosmopolitanism, Randi Saloman argues, which makes “connection the endpoint rather than the condition of moving forward” (Reference Smith690). The university and the university adjacent, Smith implies, could be a transformative space in its openness to difference and the play of the signifier. To quote Saloman again, “vast possibilities … emerge from the simple joining together of different individuals in unexpected combinations” (690).

“By reducing the body and the living being to matters of appearance, skin, and color … the Euro-American world in particular has made Blackness and race two sides of a single coin, two sides of a codified madness,” writes Achille Mbembe in Critique of Black Reason (Reference Mbembe5). Zadie Smith corrects the madness of making Blackness stand for racial difference exclusively, implicating Whiteness with Blackness every step of the way. The novels are vibrant with the chatter of the English literary canon. “I want … to be able to say that Hurston is my sister and Baldwin is my brother, and so is Kafka my brother, and Nabokov, and Woolf my sister, and Eliot and Ozick,” Smith has stated. There is an identical moment of double consciousness in Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark, where she expresses her awe of the prodigious imaginations behind “Faulkner’s Benjy, James’s Maisie, Flaubert’s Emma, Melville’s Pip, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” (Reference Morrison4). As a reader, she can freely inhabit the canon that she is historically estranged from, while as an African American woman writer she is just as unfree in “my genderized, sexualized, wholly racialized world” (Reference Morrison4).

There are no pieties associated with the fact of Blackness. In Smith’s short story, “Sentimental Education,” Monica, who, like Zora Belsey in On Beauty is obtusely “on the side of law and order” (Reference Smith13), wants her boyfriend’s childhood best friend to stop lodging furtively in their Oxbridge college. Monica and Darryl are Black, the tracksuited friend Leon White, working class, and a drug dealer. “I don’t like the idea of a young white man dragging a young black man into the mud,” Monica sanctimoniously states, before reporting Leon anonymously to the provost (Reference Smith15). As with Monty Kipps in On Beauty, the vaunted ideal of meritocracy upheld by Monica is unmitigated by self-reflection on her privilege. Zadie Smith can be taught to decolonize the English literary curriculum not only because second-generation Caribbean literature has arrived, the derisive trope of arrival itself a colonial inheritance. Novels such as On Beauty and Swing Time do not err on the side of essentialism, demonstrating instead that beauty or rhythm are extracultural and transhistorical forces, but they can also be individual and personal in the Fanonesque ambivalences of identification.


Chapter 1 Decolonizing the University

Chapter 2 Decolonizing the English Department in Ireland

Chapter 3 First Peoples, Indigeneity, and Teaching Indigenous Writing in Canada

Chapter 4 Decolonizing Literary Pedagogies in Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand

Chapter 5 Genders, Sexualities, and Decolonial Methodologies

Chapter 6 Black British Literature Decolonizing the Curriculum


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Figure 0

Table 4.1 Māori literature in a conventional syllabus of Aotearoa New Zealand literature

Figure 1

Figure 4.1 Whakapapa [genealogy] of Māori literature