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Black and South East Asian British Literatures


Edited and introduced by Geoffrey V. Davis and Anne Fuchs


Postcolonial Literatures in English, Vol. 5

Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 2018

Paperback. 293 p. ISBN 978-3868217667. 35,95€


Reviewed by Marissia Fragkou

Canterbury Christ Church University



In 1990, black feminist thinker bell hooks advocated the significance of ‘speaking from the margins’ and described marginality to be ‘a site of radical possibility, a space for resistance’ in order to ‘imagine […] new worlds’.(1) In recent years, the marginal embodied experience of race has begun to gain more ground and reverberate into the mainstream. In the context of contemporary Britain, the notion of ‘cultural diversity’ has had a noticeable impact on the arts and the education sector. In addition to several Arts Council reports and policy changing initiatives in the late 1980s and through the 1990s, it became a key trope in New Labour’s cultural policies in the early 2000s, leading to an increased visibility of artists from a non-white background. Following the racially motivated murder of teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993 in South East London which, as Lynette Goddard highlights, ‘arguably led to a country beginning to recognise the big issues of racism and discrimination towards black people, one of the lasting legacies of England’s colonial past that has dogged the country for centuries’,(2) Sir William Macpherson’s report published as part of The Stephen Lawrence Enquiry (1999) opened the space for organisations and institutions to revisit their strategies of inclusion and promotion of ethnic minorities. The significance of cultural diversity has further foregrounded questions of inclusion and accessibility of marginalised and disadvantaged non-white communities and has now become a chief concern in the context of Higher Education, with many Universities developing their widening participation agendas and beginning to answer wider calls for ‘decolonising the curriculum’ through the inclusion of previously silenced voices. The calls to extend this work has become even more palatable in response to the #BlackLivesMatter movement that has further exposed the legacies of colonialism and slavery and the urgency to tackle these head on.

It is a rare find to encounter a scholarly publication that tackles all the above areas in a comprehensive way by positioning ethnically diverse voices at the epicentre of its enquiry. Black and South East Asian British Literatures brings together an impressive compilation of 80 short texts that cut across a range of historical and disciplinary contexts and writing styles; the book primarily navigates contexts from theatre, literature and cultural studies and includes essays written by renowned scholars, journalists, poets, novelists, cultural theorists and playwrights from the 18th century to the present. The texts take the form of scholarly essays, interviews, memoirs, theatre program notes, and reports. Compiling an anthology that follows an inclusive and balanced approach is always a difficult task and there is always the fear of excluding certain voices over others; the particular collection has been carefully curated to mitigate this through the inclusion of male and female authors of Afro-Carribean, Asian or African heritage who discuss the racialised experiences of black and South Asian communities and their contribution to the fabric of contemporary Britain.    

Following a detailed introduction by the editors Geoffrey V. Davis and Anne Fuchs which provides a solid framing of the volume in terms of the historical and geographical contexts it aspires to cover, the book is further divided into six sections. The first one entitled ‘Histories’ offers a wealth of immigrant perspectives from the 17th century to the present day. It focuses on the biographical accounts of Carribean women Mary Prince (Mary Prince) and Mary Seacole (Ziggi Alexander and Audrey Dewjee), Egyptian-Sudanese journalist and actor Duse Mohemmed Ali (C.L. Innes), the Windrush generation (Peter Fryer, E.R. Braithwaite, Mike Philips and Trevor Phillips), Enoch Powell’s impact on the consolidation of racialised and racist discourses in the post-1960s period (Hanif Kureishi, Mike Phillips and Trevor Philips) and the Macpherson report which was published at the back of the public inquiry into Stephen Lawrence’s murder (‘The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry’). Of particular note are Koye Oyedeji’s essay which considers the rippling effects of the Macpherson report into organisations beyond the police but also the conservative backlash which sought to skew other commissioned reports which confirmed that ‘Britishness, as much as Englishness, has systematic largely unspoken racial connotations’ [79]. The section closes with an autobiographical text by novelist Kamila Shamsie which taps into the complexities of belonging in a new home and acquiring the legal right to remain in the UK after she migrated from Pakistan under an artist visa.

The second part ‘Identities’ continues in a similar vein by further considering the legacy of the Empire and unpacking terms such as ‘racism’ (Peter Fryer), ‘multiculturalism’ (Shalman Rushdie), and ‘black identity’ (Gabriele Griffin) and discussing how these become manifest on stage (Aleks Sierz). The section opens with Salman Rushdie’s 1982 text ‘The New Empire within Britain’ which presciently observes that ‘Britain is undergoing a critical phase of its postcolonial period […] a crisis of the whole culture, of the society’s entire sense of self. And racism is only the most clearly visible part of the crisis’ [87]. Other texts that stand out are Stuart Hall’s ‘Minimal Self’, where he deconstructs notions of stable self and identity whilst also questioning the introspective and fragmentary politics of postmodernism vis-à-vis migrant identities and Andrea Levy’s fascinating ‘Back to My Own Country’ where she shares the discovery of her racialised self through the difficult histories of the Afro-Caribbean experience and her complex negotiation of belonging in a country she was born in. Meera Syal’s ‘Our Previously Hidden Stories’ which appeared in the programme of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre’s production of her book Anita and Me (2015) further draws attention to the increase of visibility of ‘hidden stories’ of Indian customs into the mainstream.

The third section focusing on ‘Language’ examines another dimension of the hybridity of British culture through the lens of multilingualism. The essays here focus on the mixture of Jamaican creole (patois) and standard English which has led to the creation of Black British English (Mark Sebba and Susan Dray, V.K. Edwards) and Binglish (Dominic Hingorani), language which brings together ‘a range of Asian languages, […] such as Hindi, Punjabi, Gujarati and English’ [152]. The section also includes a thought-provoking text by Paul Gilroy which contemplates the paradoxes of ‘Cockney Translation’ to highlight the impossibility of London’s urban black communities to find a language to express their complex identity [159].

The book dedicates its fourth section on aspects of education in postcolonial literatures. It covers a range of topics from the legacy of C.L.R James on Black British intellectuals (Paul Warmington), to the painful racial discrimination young migrants from Asia and the West Indies had to endure in the British education system during the 1970s and beyond (Bernard Coard, Morgan Dalphinis) and the scarcity of employment opportunities of young Bangladeshi women in East London (Naila Kabeer). Particular attention is paid to the implications of knife crime which affects young black males, a chief focus in several plays during the first decade of the twenty-first century such as Roy Williams’ Fallout (Rowena Mason) and Takina Gupta’s White Boy (Alison Roberts).

This particular interest in theatre runs throughout the book; as the editors point out, this is due to the subject’s relative invisibility in anthologies of this type[15]. This focus is particularly pronounced in the book’s penultimate section ‘Movements and Genres’ where the majority of the essays examine particular genres in theatre and performance poetry. From David Edgar’s 2006 informative discussion of the Arts Council’s institutional practices that aimed to foster cultural diversity, this section includes further texts that consider particular types of aesthetics such as ‘black theatre’ (Roy Williams), ‘dub poetry’ (Christian Habekost) and Tamasha theatre company’s mixture of puppetry, Brechtian aesthetics and multilingualism as employed in their production A Fine Balance (Chandrika Patel). What is of particular interest here are discussions of the material conditions of production and reception of artists of colour: Kwame Dawes’ essay ‘Black British Poetry, Some Considerations’ discusses how Black British poets are mostly excluded from ‘the book scene’ but ‘dominate the performance scene’ [204]; Clare Cochrane’s ‘Engaging the Audience’ studies the reasons behind the financial failure of two mainstream productions in Birmingham and Leicester targeting Asian audiences. Both texts articulate an imperative to address the wider complexities of the exclusion of ethnic minorities from British culture and the arts. Another significant dimension briefly touched on in the short extract ‘Social/Sexual Trauma and the Pressure to be a “Good Girl”’ by Victoria Sams, is the intricate material conditions of young Asian female artists like playwright Gurpreet Bhatti whose work seeks to unsettle hegemonic ideologies within the Sikh community of Birmingham.

The sixth and final part re-mobilises questions of identity, belonging, nation and gender through a particular focus on transnationalism. In addition to the range of stimulating essays on theatre (Dominic Hingorani, Rodreguez King-Dorset, Lynette Goddard) and fiction (Judie Newman), this section features texts which address questions of identity more broadly. Two essays discuss the exclusion of Black and Muslim females due to hierarchical structures of white feminism in the case of the former (Hazel V. Carby) and economic precarity for the latter (Yasmin Alibhai-Brown). Stuart Hall’s 1999 ‘Reinventing Britain’ highlights the backlash against cultural diversity by the rise of nationalistic and insular rhetoric in the context of Fortress Europe and champions transnationalism as ‘the site on which the redefinition of England or Britain is going to occur’ [230]. Homi Bhabha’s ‘The Vernacular Cosmopolitan’ reminds us of the double consciousness of migrants living in Britain who occupy an ‘in-between space’ between their own cultures and the dominant one, and whose very existence is marked by a process of translation which functions ‘as an act of survival’ [232]. Bhabha’s text echoes much of the work included in the anthology and particularly John McLeod’s ‘Fantasy Relationships : Black British Canons in a Transnational World’ which closes the book. McLeod’s essay is a gem in the collection as it rehearses previous discussions around the complexities of Black British identities or, in his words, ‘the multifariousness of Black Britain as a fertile conjunction’ [271] which appear throughout the collection; echoing Hall, McLeod also reminds us of the inherent transnationalism of Black British (and other migrant) identities and problematises the processes of canon formation in the context of Black British writing which often fail to locate the work against its transnational context.

The book provides a wealth of information and opportunity to discover and revisit hidden histories and its dramaturgy creates the space for common issues of consideration to emerge, such as: the lasting legacies of the slave-trade and the British settlers’ drive for profit which laid the foundations for racism to develop; colonialism’s perennial influence in the contemporary globalised world; and the complexities of location and experience of contemporary Black and Asian identities in the context of British society which are often compromised by the tokenism of cultural diversity. Despite the brevity of some extracts, the book certainly whets the appetite for further investigation into several areas (such as the pictorial representation of race in paintings) but could have perhaps tried to amplify the range of topics by expanding the discussion of race and ethnicity and its intersections with sexuality. Overall, Black and South Asian British Literatures is a timely collection that responds to the urgent need to revisit the legacy of slavery and colonialism and to combat injurious narratives that mark non-white bodies as lives not worthy of grief. In this sense, the book further sustains a dialogue by engaging with the ‘marginal voice’ pace hooks whilst adopting a transnational approach in order to uncover the complexities of contemporary black and South Asian British identities. It can be an invaluable and accessible resource for decolonising the curriculum across a range of disciplines from Drama, English and Cultural Studies.


 (1) ‘Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness’, in T. Prentki & S. Preston (eds.), The Applied Theater Reader. Abingdon: Routledge, 2009 : 83.

 (2) Lynette Goddard, Contemporary Black British Playwrights : Margins to Mainstream. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2015 : 7-8.



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