Sarah Jilani grew up in a bilingual household negotiating the tenuous relationship between being a foreigner and a local in TurkeyRosie Bradbury

“Sometimes I’m grateful that I did not have my formative years in Oxbridge,” remarks Sarah Jilani (Ph.D., King’s), “because I wonder if I would have had the confidence to work on the topics I’m working on today.” Sarah studied for an undergraduate degree in English at the University of York before going on to a Master’s programme at Oxford. As a Ph.D. candidate, Sarah is one of a handful of doctoral students in the English Faculty whose academic areas of interest lie within the realm of postcolonial studies. The work of these students signifies a departure from the type of research ordinarily undertaken in the Faculty. Her arrival also coincided with the ascension of the Decolonise English campaign, one in which she has continued to play a role in pushing the boundaries of discussion within the English Faculty.

Born to a Kashmiri-British father and Turkish mother in Istanbul, Sarah grew up in a bilingual household negotiating the tenuous relationship between being a foreigner and a local in Turkey. Bearing British and Turkish passports, Sarah found herself confronted by the challenge of proving she was a home student upon arriving in university. “In some ways, I never had recourse to the certainty of one answer when it came to self-defining notions based in race, nationality, and mother tongue,” Sarah notes. “So I had to choose between letting indeterminacy being a crippling or an empowering thing.”

Sarah’s experience as a mixed race person with an international school education has equipped her with the ability to think critically about her heritage. With one foot in the cultures of the Global South and another in the metropolitan centers of the West, Sarah’s intellectual interests have continued to dwell on the non-Eurocentric ways in which people’s lives have been defined around the world. Her study of postcolonial literatures has not simply been shaped by a desire to read and study narratives about people have had similar experiences as her. Rather, she argues that texts that deal with questions of discrimination, mixed identity, and representational justice are the very questions she wants to delve into. “I identify with these texts in an emotive and intellectual sense,” she remarks, “because they are preoccupied with the things I have been preoccupied with all my life.”

Arriving at York proved to be a departure from the educational and cultural environment Sarah had become accustomed to. Having been exposed to the works of writers of colour like Chinua Achebe and Toni Morrison while taking the International Baccalaureate, and works of Turkish literature through her mother, the relative ethnic and academic homogeneity of the UK university struck her as insular in focus, similar to the English Tripos. Her Master’s program in Oxford proved even more rigid and canonical in its focus on such writers as Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound. Through her four years of university work, Sarah found herself unconsciously drawn to postcolonial approaches to such canonical texts. For example, she examined tensions surrounding the constitution of British identity in Eighteenth-century poetry and on anxieties around blackness in film adaptations of Othello. These questions of identity, nationality, and race are often central to postcolonial approaches to literature in any era.

It was only during a module on literatures of resistance in her third year of undergraduate study that she was introduced to literature that was explicitly political. The theories of identity she’d previously worked on began to feed into the material dimension– the lived experiences of people and nations struggling to recover autonomy. She examined the literatures produced during periods of decolonisation in the 1960s and 1970s in nations newly independent from the British Empire. This interest was sharpened in her master’s dissertation at Oxford where she focused on the relationship between decolonisation and the self in post-independence literature and film. This fed in to later work as a freelance arts and film journalist contributing articles to The Economist, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Independent. The concerns she grappled with in university continued to shape her freelance career: she wrote articles foregrounding artists and filmmakers of colour; of artistic movements around the globe; and reviews of world cinema. A short stint in the Istanbul office of a global advertising firm cemented a desire to remain in the UK, where she felt the workplace had less sexism, homophobia, and racism. “Academia and journalism both warrant a jail sentence in Turkey at the moment,” she laughs, “but they’re the only things I know how to do.”

Sarah’s return to academia was informed by a desire to write about her area of interest in depth: postcolonial literature and film. The privilege of her British passport allowed her to apply for and receive a full scholarship from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), funding her research in Cambridge. Her thesis focuses on subjectivity and decolonisation in African and South Asian film and literature, an interdisciplinary focus she believes best reflects the anxieties that accompanied newly independent nations in the early 1950s and 1960s. “These writers and artists often seem to be preoccupied with the question, ‘Why has liberation not been achieved’?” Sarah remarks. Although these texts were often torn between decolonising the mind and the urgency of material transformation for their nations at large, Sarah emphasises that subjectivity is the crux that straddles both: in the aftermath of colonisation, many African and South Asian writers and filmmakers were seeking to assert the humanity of their people in their art, and rethink the role of the individual within society in radical ways.

In her research project, Sarah describes how the idea of the self has long been associated with the type of bourgeois individualism usually rooted in Western liberal discourses. The colonial process of grouping people led to a flattening of their humanity, in which the colonised were often seen as masses rather than individuals. At the same time, colonialism oppressed collective ways of self-identification, and instilled inferiority complexes. Because they attempt to rethink both self and society, Sarah argues, films and literatures after the independences treat subjectivity as a key concern.

Sarah has taken to examining the works of various filmmakers and writers such as the Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray, the Ghanaian writer Ayi Kwei Armah, the Nigerian writer Buchi Emecheta and Senegalese filmmaker Ousman Sembène. All of these artists worked in either English or French and through this interdisciplinary and cross-continental scope, Sarah has sought to identify similarities in their respective political and aesthetic situations and their attempts to carve new ways of defining their people and their history. Sembène, for instance, became a writer after being a migrant labourer. He later opted for the medium of film for its affinity with the oral tradition in the Wolof language and its potential to reach ordinary Senegalese. Recurrent themes in Sembène’s films include the history of colonialism, the failings of religion, the critique of the new African bourgeoisie, and the strength of African women. The nuances of the respective situations these artists were working in serves to reinstate their significance within a global survey of arts, film, and literature.

Yet, Sarah notes that many of those creating film and literature were able to do owing to the privileges of class and education. She asserts that while this generation of postcolonial artists tried to rehabilitate their nations, they were rarely representative of the people they sought to depict. “To what extent were the people aware of a broader struggle?” Sarah asks. She points out these texts also sometimes overestimated the political consciousness surrounding independence, which was also motivated by class mobility. Moreover, she describes the wildly different political situations nations across Africa and South Asia were contending with after achieving independence. For example, while Ghana experienced a relatively peaceful constitutional handover, Kenya’s was marred by years of bloodshed. “Comparative work isn’t about generalising from these different histories,” she remarks, “but thinking through the commonalities and differences to understand this shared, but varied, experience of colonialism.”


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In effect, Sarah’s work not only attempts to recapitulate these narratives and how they shaped the way people saw themselves after the physical and psychological violence of colonisation, but also to foster an intellectual culture that draws attention to alternative, non-Eurocentric perspectives in Cambridge. She notes that there remains a huge disparity across the UK in terms of interdisciplinary studies in academic institutions, with the English Tripos in particular continuing to neglect oral and filmic forms. This is one way in which the arts of the Global South remain sidelined in the academy.

More practically, Sarah notes that there remains a dearth of funding for Ph.D. students attempting to do research in postcolonial studies. Of the 60 or so Ph.D. students the AHRC funds every year, Sarah is the only one in her 2017 cohort undertaking postcolonial studies in English. She addresses the fact that the AHRC funds topics it finds to be of interest and urgency, but wonders if postcolonial studies has not been given that same sense of critical weight. Given the small number of English Ph.D. students pursuing such topics, Sarah argues that it is inevitable that there would not be enough supervisors who feel equipped or interested in marking essays by undergraduates on gender, race, intersectionality, and practical criticism in non-Western contexts. “There are simply not enough research students in the current English Faculty working through these lenses,” Sarah argues. “It trickles down to the ways in which undergraduate students are taught.”

The situation Sarah finds herself in proves to be one in which she will continue to be culturally alienated in the UK’s higher education system. She remarks that as more people grow up having the same experiences as her — one defined by a perspective that results from multiple belongings — these questions of representational justice will become even more pertinent in the academic sphere. “More and more of us belong to several places, cultures and histories,” she remarks, “and we are all coming of age.” It is in future academics like Sarah whom we can continue to place our faith in to transform Cambridge and drive the most important discussions of today.

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