Noella Chye

“I was a little bit naïve and doe-eyed when I first got here,” remarks Ian Wang (Third Year, Corpus Christi). “It felt like I had nobody to speak to regarding the question – Am I right in thinking these perspectives are limited?” Ian is one of the few Chinese-British students who can be found in the English faculty. Unlike many other BME (black and minority ethnic) students, Ian’s family has not been affected by colonialism in the same direct way. Ian’s parents arrived in Manchester from Beijing and Dalian in the 1980s for graduate school. They opted to lay their roots down in the UK and became heavily invested in their local Chinese-British community.

Ian’s experience as a member of a marginal group in British society has thus led to a feeling of solidarity with other marginalised groups

Ian notes, “To be Chinese-British is to be alienated at some point in your life, especially in a society that prioritises whiteness”. He recalls reading a line in Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse wherein she wrote about a person who has “Chinese eyes”. He laments, “I remember reading that and thinking, ‘Wait, I have Chinese eyes. What is that even supposed to mean?’”

Growing up, Ian recalls that there was a severe lack of British Chinese presence in mainstream media and culture. In a piece written for Varsity, Ian writes, “We never had a Goodness Gracious Me or a Bend it Like Beckham, for example. We don’t have Zadie Smith, Hanif Kureishi, Monica Ali, or Benjamin Zephaniah. The closest thing we have is Gok Wan, Cho Chang and, if you’re lucky, a Chinatown district in your city.” In the absence of Chinese-British narratives to turn to, it was inevitable that Ian would find a connection with other people of marginalised backgrounds in Britain and beyond rather than with white British communities.

Ian’s experience as a member of a marginal group in British society has thus led to a feeling of solidarity with other marginalised groups, who all exist in an interlocking system of societal oppression. “Being a member of a certain race, or a certain gender, or being an LGBT individual, or having a disability all create a feeling of alienation in some way,” he remarks. “When you’re the only person in the lecture hall who looks like you, you understand what it means to not be the dominant group in society.” It is this collective experience of societal alienation and ‘otherness’ that has enabled a sense of solidarity between students of marginalised backgrounds in Cambridge communities such as the BME campaign and FLY. While members hail from a rich variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds, Ian believes that they possess a shared outsider status. This has led Ian to serve as his college’s BME Officer on their JCR Committee. Moreover, it is this sense of interethnic solidarity that has driven the campaign to decolonise the English curriculum.

It is this collective experience of societal alienation and ‘otherness’ that has enabled a sense of solidarity between students of marginalised backgrounds

When Ian first arrived in Cambridge, the notion of decolonising the curriculum had not yet taken on the prominence it has today. There were neither reading nor working groups, no avenues to voice his frustrations, nor any understanding of analysing literature from a racialised perspective. The call for the decolonisation of the English Faculty was first consolidated in an open letter published at the end of Easter Term in 2017, which lobbied for the broadening of the English Tripos to take into account colonial, postcolonial and ethnic minority authors while acknowledging the sustained influence of Britain’s imperial history on its literatures. The public backlash was swift and misrepresentative, with accusations targeting specific individuals like Selwyn graduate Lola Olufemi, a co-author of the letter, whose photograph was splashed on the front page of the Telegraph next to the misconstrued headline, “Student forces Cambridge to drop white authors”.

It is in the face of these misguided social campaigns vilifying students of colour that Ian insists on the importance of interethnic solidarity amongst BME students. Ian believes that a community built from such solidarity is crucial to enable BME students to resist the tendencies of everyday racism, an inevitable reality for BME students studying English, especially as it often remains epistemelogically embedded in the way that the English Tripos is conceived. As such, Ian has gotten involved as a member of the Decolonise English Working Group and has also been able to address topics related to decolonisation when he took over the English Faculty Library’s Twitter account for a day. Ian further remarks that other universities and faculties within Cambridge continue to make strides that the English Faculty itself has failed to achieve.

For example, he recalls that in the Education, English, Drama and the Arts track on the Education Tripos, marginal perspectives are at the core of their syllabus. “I remember that the Education students were shocked that postcolonial thinkers are not looked at in detail on the English Tripos,” he remarks. This is made evident in a compulsory paper taken in the first year of the Tripos entitled ‘Poetics, Aesthetics and Criticism’, which critically analyses literature through lenses including feminist and queer theories, posthumanist and poststructuralist theories and developments in digital literature. He sees this as encouragement for all those involved in the campaign, one that eschews the belief that it is impossible for the Tripos to be changed. “If other departments have done it,” he remarks, “Why can’t we?”

Solidarity is crucial to enable BME students to resist the tendencies of everyday racism, an inevitable reality for BME students

Ian’s activism and belief in the importance of interethnic solidarity has subsequently informed his academic approach to the Tripos, especially due to a perceived affinity with those of marginalised backgrounds unlike his own. Ian has particularly chosen to focus on African American writers, for whom a critical vocabulary that resists racism and colonialism is well developed.

In his second year, Ian worked on writers such as Phillis Wheatley and Olaudah Equiano for a paper on the long 18th century (1660 – 1870), both of whom were freed slaves of African origin who became professional writers in the United States. “This is something that we don’t think of as possible back then,” he remarks, “especially since slavery had not been abolished at the time”. This historical scarcity of nonwhite voices points to a more pernicious assumption about the history of literature– that there were no black or Asian writers in English until the 20th century. It is this frame of thinking that makes it easy for Cambridge as an institution to dismiss nonwhite writers from the literary canon, provoking stereotypes that non-Eurocentric literatures and thought traditions are not worth according critical attention.

For his third year dissertation, Ian has chosen to work on science fiction, albeit in a way that strives to add nuance to discussion surrounding literatures written by people of colour. He notes that the genre often functions as an allegorical critique of contemporary political and cultural conditions through defined narrative structures such as dystopian futures, the misuse of technologies beyond the realm of the contemporary imagination, or the societal distortions that are enacted as a result. However, these critiques rarely examined the impact of these alternative realities and futures within the context of race. “Science fiction is often regarded as a sort of white, male, and nerdy genre,” he quips, one often associated with novels and literary works such as George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s A Brave New World, and Isaac Asimov’s Robot series. While these acclaimed works reflect the technological and political anxieties regarding modernity and advancement, they do not examine the alternative realities within the context of multiracial communities.


Mountain View

Rethinking the canon: dismantling the colonial mindset

The perceived lack of the genre’s engagement with race has led Ian to work on Octavia Butler, an African American science fiction writer who has used the tools of the genre to critique hierarchical thinking, distortions of the human body, and the creation of alternative communities. Specifically, Ian has chosen to focus on Butler’s 1979 novel Kindred, which details the experience of Dana, an African American woman who is transported from 1976 to pre-civil war, slavery-era America and has to learn to survive to return to the present. By understanding how Butler uses tools of the science fiction genre to open up discursive possibilities surrounding historical memory, Ian is seeking to examine how narrative techniques such as time travel help to provoke meditations on the nature of trauma. In bringing her protagonist to the past, Butler dismantles the historical distance between present day African American communities and ‘past’ horrors of slavery to provide an opportunity for readers to consider how black communities continually process racial trauma. Ian argues that Butler has worked within the constraints of an already small genre to add nuance and depth to an understanding of what it is to be someone with a marginalised identity marred by ancestral trauma and gendered racial violence.

An emphasis on interethnic solidarity reflects the common vision... an English curriculum that substantively reflects the diversity of contemporary Britain and the Anglophone world

Ian’s work on Butler demonstrates the expansive possibilities presented by a decolonised curriculum – one that seeks to epistemologically reevaluate the basis of humanity as reflected in literature. Ian’s belief in a sense of interethnic solidarity undergirds both his academic work on authors from marginalised communities and his involvement in student activism. He believes this to be vital in keeping pressure on the English Faculty to embrace this reevaluation of what decolonisation is and should be about.

An emphasis on interethnic solidarity reflects the common vision that we can and should aspire toward, regardless of our ethnic backgrounds and identities: a hope for an English curriculum that substantively reflects the diversity of contemporary Britain and the Anglophone world. Despite the friends who have been vilified in the media, opinion pieces that have been written to seemingly little attention, and students who continue to persist against a feeling of institutional marginalisation, Ian remains fiercely optimistic. This common vision is one we must never be willing to give up.

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