Fergus Lamb is a second year English student at Wolfson CollegeRosie Bradbury

“Do you think Willy Wonka ever allowed the Oompa-Loompas to unionise?” asks Fergus Lamb (second year, Wolfson). Our giggling is followed by a moment of deep contemplation. We mull over the ways in which Roald Dahl’s famous chocolate factory also happens to be a fantastical vehicle of capitalism and colonialism. Before Dahl’s rewrites, the Oompa-Loompas were portrayed as African pygmies who were paid in cocoa beans. Perhaps this veered too dangerously close to the history of slavery, indentured servitude, and labour exploitation across the British Empire: Dahl rewrote them with white skin and golden hair. Our exercise, while humorous, serves to underscore what Fergus believes is necessary about approaching the English Tripos critically.

Growing up in Kent, Fergus was for a long time unaware of the colonial undertones in the literature he was reading. “You adopt racist viewpoints when you’re raised in a racist society,” he remarks. Being white, British and male, Fergus had a comfortably Eurocentric upbringing that involved an uncritical imbibing of ‘canonical’ texts and their portrayal of race relations and colonial dynamics. “When we’re young, we’re always being taught how to understand the world through ideology and political thinking,” Fergus asserts. This necessarily culminated in a worldview that divided whites and nonwhites, or, as articulated by postcolonial thinker Edward Said, a worldview in which the white Western ‘Self’ can only define itself in relation to the ‘inferior’, non-white, Eastern ‘Other’. Fergus notes the ease with which this became his predominant way of viewing the world before his encounter with postcolonial critics.

“It is important that we do study and critique these old, stale, white writers,” Fergus argues, “because they’re still popular”

Reading Nigerian author Chinua Achebe’s famous lecture “An Image of Africa” inaugurated Fergus’s process of critically rethinking the worldview he grew up with. Achebe powerfully challenges Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and its depiction of Africa as “a foil to Europe, as a place of negations at once remote and vaguely familiar, in comparison with which Europe's own state of spiritual grace will be manifest”. Conrad, he says, portrays Africa as "'the other world', the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization", which Achebe attributes to Conrad's "residue of antipathy to black people".

Reading Achebe helped Fergus to challenge the preconceptions he had passively accepted as part of his worldview. He often adopted stereotypes present in the media that exaggerated political affairs in other countries as chaotic as opposed to recognising how actual political conditions emerged from historical circumstance. In particular, it helped to subvert his reading of Heart of Darkness, providing the language and critical apparatus he needed to confirm prior suspicions he had about the text and defend these positions thereafter. Fergus believes that these binaries between the ‘Self’ and ‘Other’, while simplistic, are essential to understanding how such stories are built as well as the human interactions and power dynamics present within literary texts.

“We cannot be led to believe that the intellectual labour of decolonisation should be left to people of colour”

“It is important that we do study and critique these old, stale, white writers,” Fergus argues, “because they’re still popular”. So long as such novels, poems, and plays depend on a colonial mindset to be understood, uncritical readings of such texts threaten to propagate the notion of a literary whiteness – one in which humanity is accorded to European characters at the behest of all others through literary representation. It is through such encounters with postcolonial paradigms that Fergus believes there remains the task of understanding and dismantling Eurocentric frameworks. “I never considered myself a racist growing up,” he comments. “Reading these theorists helped me make the leap from believing that racism is just an individual problem to recognising the way it is structural in Britain”. Having been equipped with the tools to address patronising depictions of race and the colonised, he was led to look back at texts he’d read before and see how nuance could be opened in such readings. These readings strove to break the lens rooted in hegemonic white imperialism.

For example, Fergus points to the ways in which the character Caliban, from William Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, often brings to mind colonial anxieties about natives, sexual assault, and miscegenation. In the play, Caliban, a native of the island conquered by the sorcerer Prospero, is punished for an attempted assault on Prospero’s daughter Miranda. “It speaks of a rather brutal history,” Fergus claims, “of the perennial fear that ‘the other is out to steal our pretty white girls’”.

His exposure to postcolonial writers has been key to reconstructing the narrative of empire he grew up with

He also alludes to how Heathcliff, from Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, is described as a “dark-skinned gypsy in aspect”. Fergus argues that the language of racism allows us to interpret the text from within, particularly in how the “text understands its own kinship structure”. Fergus points out that this language of the ‘other’ provides a means of understanding the low social position Heathcliff occupies, and how it allows readers to understand him as being both within and without the novel’s aristocratic household. An understanding of the tension defining Heathcliff’s status in his household and his family members can only be achieved via the language of racism.

Such readings can only be unlocked by a decentering of perspectives – one in which the hegemonic lens is recognised for its dangerous and patronising ability to strip individuals of their humanity. Not only does this bear profound implications for how readers conceive and understand one another as humans, but it also contributes to a more robust intellectual practice of literary criticism, the ostensible objective of the English Tripos. It is disingenuous to obscure the ways that context and social dynamics inform a critical reading of literature, and to do otherwise would inhibit the achievement of greater intellectual depth.


Mountain View

Rethinking the canon: the underdogs of literature

The deconstruction of a colonial mindset in literature therefore seeks to challenge the ways in which mindsets that have historically sought to demonise and dehumanise people of other cultures and races has contributed to the proliferation of violence. In doing so, there remains the necessity of disassociation from a literary tradition of white supremacy. Fergus believes that it is vital for white British people to be exposed to postcolonial critics such as Said, Gayatri Spivak, and Frantz Fanon to better appreciate the physical and psychological violence suffered by the colonised and why it is vital to critique colonial thinking in literature. In his process of deconstructing colonial lenses, Fergus admits that he continues to make mistakes. Despite having read these postcolonial theorists, he continues to be conscious of the ways in which he can be complicit with structural inequality.

Within the broader intellectual practice of decolonisation, Fergus believes that white people have a particular responsibility to play, especially in understanding their white privilege within cultural systems, social hierarchies, and the existing literary canon. “We cannot be led to believe that the intellectual labour of decolonisation should be left to people of colour,” he asserts. Fergus’s process of rethinking his critical habits has been accompanied by his reckoning with the atrocities committed by people from his own home. His exposure to postcolonial writers has been key to reconstructing the narrative of empire he grew up with, yielding a sense of indignation toward the violence inflicted by colonialists in the past and the ways of thinking that serve to perpetuate such violence today.

More specifically, he believes that white British people should take their cues from those who have been historically marginalised in literary studies. The dismantling of one’s critical apparatus when reading literature is essential to recognising how white privilege continues to operate in British society. Reading literature critically allows for one to identify the intellectual foundations of such privilege and to critique it. A dismantling of privilege does not seek to undermine white individuals, but rather to restore parity amongst those of different ethnicities. It is therefore crucial, Fergus believes, for students of colour to take the lead in identifying the intersections of literary discourse and the upholding of racist societal structures. “White people should be the infantrymen in this campaign,” he notes, referring to the ways in which white British students should allow the perspectives of minority ethnic students to be centred in the process of decolonising the English Tripos.

A dismantling of privilege does not seek to undermine white individuals

As pressure continues to be placed on the English Faculty to provide lectures on postcolonial approaches and contemporary thinkers and critical theorists, Fergus also notes the importance of not allowing our critical faculties to rest there. “For a lot of us, we’re often happy to critique colonialism in the past, but we’re there’s a sense that we can be unwilling to use the same critical force to critique present day injustice.” He mentions how there is a need to make leap from critiquing literature to critiquing present day issues like immigration, our contemporary conception of the ‘third world’, or even how charity initiatives like LiveAid and Comic Relief threaten to perpetuate white saviour narratives. More perniciously, he notes the tendency to overlook the links between British colonialism and the arguable perpetuation of a present-day apartheid in Palestine. The dismantling of a critical colonial apparatus may find some of its intellectual roots in literature, but Fergus asserts that it continues to have tremendous influence over the way we conceive of the world and of one another today.

This metaleptic leap from past to present, text to lived experience, is the crucial corollary of rethinking the ways in which the English Tripos has been devised. In doing so, we may find ourselves lead to continue to ask ourselves the questions that Edward Said once asked: how does one speak the truth? What truth? For whom and where?

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