Shameera Lin is a second year English student from MalaysiaShameera Lin

 “It is not until I came to Cambridge that I realised how personal literature could be,” opines Shameera Lin (Second Year, Lucy Cavendish). An international student from Malaysia, Shameera’s journey with the English Tripos has been marked by her difficulty in forging a personal connection with the texts she has had to study. This stems from the fact that the Tripos remains largely prescriptive in terms of the works students are assigned to read, write, and think about. 

In the past 50 years, scholars such as Edward Said and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak have made vital contributions to the study of literatures in English and postcolonial studies. Their work sent shockwaves through the academic world, resulting in a renegotiation in the way English courses across the world have been organised. Many recognise the right of colonised and formerly colonised peoples to speak for themselves rather than having their narratives dictated by those who encountered them. Yet, the fruits of this intellectual enterprise do not seem to have regarded with as much importance by the Cambridge establishment.

This process is not a matter of revising history, repressing voices, or hiding facts

“The Tripos does not reflect the diversity of the world,” Shameera asserts, “nor is it made for the modern mind.” The five papers that most English students take for Part I include the Medieval paper (1300-1550), Renaissance paper (1500-1700), Shakespeare paper, the long 18th century paper (1660-1870), and the modern paper (1845-1870 or 1870 to the present day). Despite the breadth and scope offered within the Tripos, less attention is given to writers who are not ‘male, pale, and stale’; indeed, women, writers of non-British origin, and those who identify as LGBT are often sidelined by the curriculum. One could plausibly go through all three years of the English Tripos without having encountered writers beyond the context of Britain; the postcolonial paper remains an option that can only be taken in Part II of the Tripos in third year. Adding to this is the small number of lecturers and supervisors who have been adequately trained in postcolonial texts and theory.

While Shameera grew up hearing stories about African and Malayan folklore from her aunt and mother, she argues that it is postcolonial literature that has allowed international readers to see themselves in the realm of English literature. “I read Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things when I was 13,” Shameera recalls. “It was the first time it felt like my family was mentioned in any form of literature”. Shameera’s grandparents hail from Kerala in India, where the novel is set. In Roy’s writing, she saw her uncles, aunties, cousins, and grandparents in the narrative’s characters. “It was as if my massive family dynamic had been transferred to the page,” which Shameera remarks is a rare occurrence for ethnic minorities and international readers. “Words map easily on to the visual if you’re a white boy living in the countryside,” she laments, a nod to the Enid Blyton novels she read growing up. “That’s what makes this journey from the visual to the page all the more special for us.”

It is postcolonial literature that has allowed international readers to see themselves in the realm of English literature

The abundance of narratives about those of European origin has helped to cultivate a rich and multifaceted understanding of what it is to live, think, and feel within those contexts. This has lead to a comparative difficulty in empathising with those who find themselves situated outside of these narratives. As Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writes, “I loved those American and British books I read. They stirred my imagination. They opened up new worlds for me. But the unintended consequence was that I did not know that people like me could exist in literature.” The limitations of the empathetic imagination are often demarcated by the art and literature we engage with. For Shameera, this constitutes a problem given the lack of opportunities to explore non-British literatures on the English Tripos.

Shameera’s attempt to make her perspectives known to her supervisors has been an uphill battle. She recalls reading lists, conversations, and emails that have not considered anything beyond Eurocentric perspectives, as well as a jarring instance where it was made clear that a supervisor expected her to be familiar with Latin. These assumptions overlooked the cultural differences she experienced growing up in Malaysia. She describes how this has made it difficult to articulate her perspectives when encountering elements in her texts that cause deep discomfort. The exception came with a Practical Criticism supervisor who conducted supervisions on the poetry of African-American writers and Chinese poets, or facilitated discussions surrounding the orientalism in the work of Ezra Pound. “I remember that we read one poem that featured silk gowns, which I identified as referring to concubines,” Shameera remarks. “My supervisor had never heard it before in all his years teaching the poem.”

In grappling with these experiences of alienation, Shameera has emerged with a fresh conviction that her degree is a social responsibility rather than a personal adventure. “What we do affects the future,” she opines, “Especially for all the Malaysian girls who will want to come here to study English.” Shameera asserts that we are doing this degree alongside many others. She articulates that there is beauty in the fact that we have the ability to be catalysts and shape the discourse of decolonisation.


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This sense of social responsibility has manifested in a variety of academic efforts. On an individual level, Shameera has drastically changed the trajectory of her dissertation’s focus. While she initially considered working on poets such as Ted Hughes, W. H. Auden, and W. B. Yeats, her work is now focused on Kendrick Lamar, Earl Sweatshirt, and Childish Gambino. She asserts, “These are people who are poets of our time, speaking out about issues of our current day. They are just as important members of contemporary literature.” Having experienced being of minority ethnicity in both Malaysia and the UK, Shameera believes that her background has empowered her to write about their work with sensitivity and clarity. More broadly, there exist ongoing efforts to transform the Tripos to better reflect the experiences of the Anglophone world. Working groups are rethinking approaches to texts and compiling alternative reading lists, and students are working on writers that are often critically underdone.

Shameera believes that this process is not a matter of revising history, repressing voices, or hiding facts. Rather, the present opportunity we have is to broaden the scope of what is being read on the Tripos and in doing so, connect individuals with all kinds of voices. She says, “Ten years down the road, I firmly believe that Cambridge English will have a different corpus. Lecturers will have different perspectives to bring to the table and will be willing to try something new.” In doing so, we may find ourselves better positioned to understand the things that stand to unite us rather than divide, and be all the better for it. 

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