Zachary Myers is a second year student from Bermuda at King'sNoella Chye

Zachary Myers (Second Year, King’s) is an unconventional student in many respects. Zach is from Bermuda, a British Overseas Territory just north of the Caribbean boasting a population of 60 000 residents. One of few students in Bermuda’s history to have been admitted to Cambridge directly from a Bermudian high school, Zach is the first to be admitted for the English Tripos. As a citizen of a British Overseas Territory, Zach pays home fees rather than international fees for university, but has never thought of himself as British. This background has equipped Zach with a unique perspective that serves to frustrate the ways that race, citizenship, and empire are often conceived of within the framework of the English Tripos.

Zach’s father is a Trinidadian of mixed descent, bearing Indian, Syrian, African, and Caucasian ancestry, whereas his mother is Bermudian-Portuguese. “Ethnically speaking, it has been impossible for me to pin down a stable identity,” Zach notes. He points to historical migrations that have shaped Bermuda– the initial settlers who were Protestants of English heritage or white minorities of Ireland and Scotland, the influx of black and indentured labour from the West Indies or captured from Spanish and Portuguese ships by Bermudian privateers, the arrival of Portuguese immigrants meant to offset anxieties surrounding a growing black population, as well as present-day migration of persons born in Asia. The island’s history manifests in the way that Zach looks– a racially ambiguous appearance that reflects his diverse heritage. In Bermuda, Zach was always considered white. It is not until his arrival in Cambridge that Zach was confronted by British constructions of race and the realities of racialisation, the process of being ascribed racial identities that he does not identify as.

Zach has embarked on a tenuous process of recognising himself as being of black and minority ethnicity (BME). “People see me as an olive-skinned man,” Zach recalls. “It’s led to me being scanned in so many different ways.” He notes being told that he “looked like a terrorist” while carrying a backpack in a nightclub, as well as being pursued by a suitor who had “a thing for Arab-looking guys”. In a nasty encounter, he remembers being accused of stealing from a clothing store and being told, “you don’t belong here.”  Yet, while attending a BME formal, he was plagued by an iteration of imposter syndrome. “I was so anxious. I just remember thinking, ‘Am I sticking out like a sore thumb?’” His friends, however, are unequivocal about his racial identity– in the context of Britain’s societal whiteness, Zach is definitively part of the BME community.

Caribbean writers often remain sidelined in the English Tripos by rigid insistences on what is ‘canonical’

This experience of racialisation is consonant with Zach’s academic interests, particularly his interest on literature concerning the British colonial project in the West Indies. While working on the modern paper (1870 – present), Zach was fortunate to have a flexible supervisor who allowed him to write half his essays on West Indian literature. “Looking back, the essays jumpstarted my process of coming to terms with my identity and gave me the language to articulate my experiences of being racialised,” he remarks.

Zach worked on Trinidadian writer Samuel Selvon’s seminal novel The Lonely Londoners (1956), which details the lives of working-class West Indian immigrants in London. Selvon made use of a creolised English to aptly capture the unarticulated thoughts and desires of his characters. Zach also worked on the poetry of Claude McKay, a Jamaican émigré to the United States who had to negotiate the tension between his new identity as an African-American and his previous identity as a Jamaican colonial subject. As both writers negotiated their Afro-Caribbean identities amidst Western racialisation, their work mirrors Zach’s experiences in the past year and helped him better articulate his Trinidadian heritage and Bermudian upbringing.

Zach also wrote about Derek Walcott, a poet from the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1992. In his work Omeros, Walcott sought to appropriate elements from Homer and the Iliad to his Saint Lucian context. Zach maintains that Walcott’s writing articulated the experience of living on an island in the Caribbeam in all of its vast, multicultural complexity. In drawing on the classical form of the Greek epic, Zach also asserts that Walcott has demonstrated what it looks like to inherit a literary history against one’s own will, particularly owing to the imposition of the English language, and has transformed it to better reflect the experiences of daily life in Saint Lucia. As Zach asserts, “Omeros is as long as Paradise Lost and is as good or even better.” However, despite Caribbean writers’ positive critical reception in the UK, Zach notes that they often remain sidelined in the English Tripos by rigid insistences on what is ‘canonical’.

Zach shares the anxiety regarding the impossibility of recuperating a pre-colonial identity

The insistence on canonical texts is even more rigid in the Medieval and Renaissance papers, where Zach notes his difficulties in understanding the texts’ cultural and historical references. Though raised in a British education system, Zach asserts, “Reading Chaucer feels foreign to me. I often forget that people here actually read Chaucer as their history and culture.” For instance, he refers to the mention of shifting geographical locales in The Canterbury Tales of which he has little reference point. “Unless I read up on early Tudor politics, their socioeconomic policies, or the wars that were going on at the time, my papers would have remained completely unapproachable,” Zach argues.  This has generally made it difficult for him to have time to approach the curriculum from a critical, decolonised perspective.

However, he recalls working on The Tempest and being delighted to find that the one of Shakespeare’s inspirations was an eyewitness report of a shipwreck on Bermuda. While his Shakespeare supervisor willingly engaged with his examination of how the context of British expansionism should shape a reading of the play, Zach also recalls a negative experience with a Renaissance supervisor. The supervisor dismissed anything beyond canonical texts, conflating all concerns regarding race, gender, and colonialism. Such an experience highlights the pernicious inconsistency within the English Tripos in which certain supervisors are just as quick to disregard the process of intellectual and literary decolonisation as others are to embrace it.

It is not until his arrival in Cambridge that Zach was confronted by British constructions of race

The scarce academic opportunities to critically examine the literary portrayals of Bermuda and the West Indies have enabled Zach to grapple with colonial and racial discourses. Yet, he remarks that while this has equipped him with a critical vocabulary to examine Bermuda, many of these critical terms are not wholly accurate. “There are aspects of Bermudian history that do and do not fit with conceptions of the ‘colony’,” he remarks. The island of Bermuda defies conventional narratives of colonial genocide as the island was uninhabited prior to its discovery by Spanish seafarers in 1505. After Bermuda became a British colony in 1707, the island has largely remained a trade site for imperial economic convenience. Since the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997, Bermuda has become the oldest and most populous remaining dependent territory of the United Kingdom. The island is internally self-governing, with the UK retaining responsibility for defence and foreign relations.

“The two key sources of Bermuda’s economy are imperial endeavours– international business and tourism,” Zach notes. Yet, Zach indicates that the territory enjoys a high standard of living, a high GDP per capita, and scores highly on the Human Development Index. These are outcomes of what Zach describes as the ‘hypercapitalist conditions’ of Bermuda. Zach argues that Bermuda’s economic reliance on historically imperial industries has made any possibility of seeking independence difficult. Bermuda’s unique history and continuing economic success frustrate the notion that self-determination and political decolonisation will always be regarded as desirable for the reigning conception of a nation-state.


Mountain View

Rethinking the canon: building solidarity

As a result of Bermuda’s continued dependence on the UK, Zach notes that an imbibed commodification of the island has been deeply ingrained in Bermuda’s cultural psyche. “Just imagine if someone allowed a rich white person to design an island for themselves,” Zach notes. “You would get Bermuda.” While postcolonial critiques often seek to establish cultural identities not defined by the coloniser, Zach laments that Bermudians often consume a commodified Bermudian culture masquerading as ‘cultural identity’. He points to Bermudians purchasing t-shirts from local tourist shops that distill Bermudian culture into the aspects most attractive to consumers– long tails (a species of bird native to the island), Gombeys (a performance and procession filled with costumes, dance, and drumming that reflects the island’s blend of cultures), swizzle (a type of cocktail), and pink sand (characteristic of Bermuda’s famous beaches). “It’s like wearing ‘Orientalism’ on a t-shirt without the irony’,” he remarks. Like many Caribbean writers, Zach shares the anxiety regarding the impossibility of recuperating a pre-colonial identity, particularly as Bermuda operates within a contemporary colonial paradigm.

Zach’s experience as a citizen from a British Overseas Territory presents a perspective that enriches discussions relating to the decentering of literary whiteness in the English Tripos, as well as the ways we think about the ramifications of colonial thinking. His experiences posture toward the fact that the processes of cultural imperialism are still at work today. Not only does the Eurocentricism of the English Tripos fail to acknowledge the egregious context of colonialism in the past but equally, it fails to recognise the ways in which places beyond the British Isles continue to constitute the United Kingdom itself.

While decentering Britain within Anglophone literatures will bring a new dimension of rigour to the Tripos, it may more importantly provide new ways of formulating a Bermudian identity – one defined neither by money or tourists, but by the cultural complexities that continue to define the island each day. 

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