Rosie Bradbury

I am in a café in Singapore. We speak casually and briskly about the ways in which our relationship with the study of English literature has changed since we began in Cambridge. I am in a dim pub by Lucy Cavendish, doing the same thing. I am in Aromi. I am in a reading room in Wolfson. I am in the common room in Corpus, and then in King’s. I am in a room in Trinity. I am at the ARC Café. These conversations have each in turn coalesced on my laptop screen, the text cursor blinking nonchalantly with every attempt to shape a sense of coherence. 

Drafts fly back and forth furiously in Facebook chats with Jess, my editor and friend. I don’t understand this, she says. This person should have said this. I am wary at the prospect of employing literary theory too loosely at the expense of my interviewees, I reply. I am wary of the prospect of misrepresenting another’s story. Fine, she says, red tracks continuing to stain draft after draft. This is unclear, she continues. This is too esoteric. We quibble and delete, contextualise and reflect. In the absence of weekly supervisions on the modern paper of the English Tripos, this column has become my education on modern literature. 

Literature exposes the ways that we have continued to lose sight of what it is to affirm one another’s humanity. 

What has become readily apparent through the weeks is that there is a shared anxiety that students of colour have: the desire to know and be known. It is not simply a case of reading narratives about people who look like you or who have had the exact same experiences as you. If that had been the case, most of us would have abandoned any aspirations of continuing this educational enterprise long ago. Rather, in the face of a continuous series of white narratives that advance narrow iterations of human experience, many of us find ourselves drawn to writers whose work better evinces an understanding of the patterns of our own lives. Literatures that grapple with questions of racial discrimination, societal alienation, dislocation, colonial violence, migration, race, empire, identity – these are the literatures that illuminate the lives that many of us have lived. To know the experiences of those who have gone before us, whether real or fictitious, and to have these concerns known by the university.

Throughout the term, writing this column has been an attempt to present a more truthful picture of the English cohort today. It is one that is proudly multiracial, sensitive to issues of representational justice, and aware of the systemic role literature plays in shaping perceptions toward the world. This column has been an attempt to bring to shed light on the ways in which the English Tripos, as it has been for decades, is no longer tenable. The poles are shifting, the world is moving on, and this bastion of learning we have the privilege of wrestling with can no longer afford to hold on to such insularity. If not for the sake of enriching a more robust approach toward literary criticism, my column has endeavoured to illustrate the ways in which the Tripos and certain supervisors have left students feeling alienated, undermined, and degraded. The Britain we see today is not the same one that the Tripos has continued to paint, and that demands change. It is as Sarah Jilani remarked during our interview about the restless assertions of postcolonial literature, “We’re here. We’ve always been here.”

I reflected on my struggles on the English Tripos in a past article, which emerged from my alienation in my first term reading medieval literature. The urgency of that initial piece of writing emerged after a slate of articles written by my friends and their own processes of intellectual disentanglement in their areas of study. While I wish I’d worded some parts differently, looking back, it’s clear that there was an inexpressible restlessness in my desire to make my alienation known not only to those studying English but also to those administering it. I distinctly remember the rush of validation in seeing the article shared by people who’ve encountered the cultural dislocations of a language that never quite feels like your own. 

This column has been an attempt to bring to shed light on the ways in which the English Tripos, as it has been for decades, is no longer tenable.

Part of my hope in writing this column was to bring to discussions a sense of nuance, one distinct from the polemics that have rattled British media or the powerful acts of resistance in demonstrations and open letters. Growing up being a mixed-race person of Chinese-Korean descent in Singapore with relatives across continents has given me a sense of what it is to grow up between places. This experience of indeterminacy has helped me better understand the experiences of other English students who have felt out of place, whether they have been international students coming to terms with alienation in a new country, or domestic students who have contended with marginalisation all their lives. In this respect, these columns have sought to examine decolonisation less as a political or academic buzzword, but as a deeply wrenching and personal process. 

Consolidating the concerns of the people I spoke with into coherent articles has thus proven to be a difficult task each week, particularly given the dangers of easy generalisation. Listening carefully and intently could only provide the raw material for each article– stories of family, upbringing, and academic discomfort. Shaping them into cogent arguments demanded a continuous process of critical rethinking. There remained the constant challenge of balancing these personal stories with the literary texts they brought up, the theoretical frameworks that have shaped them, and the mediating force of my own writing style. I was particularly conscious of the privileges I’ve had in being given the opportunity to tell these stories, as well as the economic privileges intertwined with my transnational upbringing. I have not grown up facing any systemic oppression, but the impetus remained for me to listen and learn.

There is a kind of epistemic violence that happens when you tell someone else’s story even if they’ve given you the permission to do so, one that continues to haunt the corridors of humanities and social science departments in Western universities. To be able to do justice to the experiences of each person each week was an act of emotional labour, particularly as both Jess and I have had our own difficulties with transnational families, institutional estrangement, and the intellectual disentanglement necessary in a place like Cambridge. We dug into the histories, legacies, texts, and theories that had been brought up. We messaged people to fill in gaps we’d come across. We remained honest with our interviewees in bringing them drafts that had been revised four or five times. Embedded in our editorial enterprise was an ethos of care, a desire to let each person know that they’d been heard and acknowledged. I am still astounded by the generosity of the people willing to share their stories with the wider Cambridge community and me and remain deeply grateful.

In every story that has been shared, there is a glimmer of what a decolonised English Faculty and curriculum could look like. 

In every story that has been shared, there is a glimmer of what a decolonised English Faculty and curriculum could look like. There is great encouragement that amidst institutional constraints, things are beginning to change. There have been essays written about the earliest colonial writing about Singapore, the poetry of Kendrick Lamar, the heart of London’s Bangladeshi-British community, black time-travellers in slavery-era America, the Caribbean writers striving against their history, and the South Asian and African artists recapitulating their identities in their art. These pieces of literary criticism strive to bring nuance, depth, and complexity to the works that find themselves neglected by the Anglo-American literary establishment, to reclaim a literary humanity.

The retelling of each story from this column alone has made its own impact in one way or another, not least in the English Faculty where I’ve been encouraged by the conversations taking place amongst staff and students. Friends who’ve been interviewed have told me about how their Directors of Studies have read the articles and committed to changing their critical methodologies to be more sensitive to the concerns of students. Some stories have gained traction and provoked discussions about the difficulties of decolonising English curriculums in Cambridge and elsewhere around the world. There have been promises from the English Faculty itself to rework reading lists, consolidate broader materials for each paper, and reconceive the way lectures are structured and presented. The bureaucratic machine moves along slowly, but there is good reason to remain hopeful.

For myself, my dissertation focuses on Pachinko, a 2017 novel by Korean-American writer offering a historical sweep of a Korean family that migrates to Japan and becomes embedded in legal, societal, and material discrimination under Japanese colonial rule. It is difficult to pin down exactly what attracted me to the novel. Perhaps it was the change to consider the questions of racial passing that the novel raises with regard to its Korean-Japanese characters. Perhaps it was a desire to consider the colonial legacies of Imperial Japan, one experienced by both my Malaysian and Korean grandparents. What followed in turn was a term spent wrestling with questions of representational agency, faith, mixed identities, and the calcification of systemic prejudice. It has been an academic endeavour that has carried more personal resonances than anything I’ve worked on during my time at Cambridge, particularly in reconciling my involvement with the Decolonise English campaign and my Christian faith.

There is a kind of epistemic violence when happens when you tell someone else’s story even if they’ve given you the permission to do so

My engagements with decolonisation have been chiefly defined by my Christian faith, for it has never been the imperative of Jesus to endorse the violence that has been committed in his name, but my faith undergirds a belief in every individual’s essential worth and humanity. It is my faith that has helped me to see the hypocrisy of colonial Christianities and understand how the reclamation of the religion restored dignity to the newly faithful. Pachinko offers an alternative reading of Christianity, one in which seminary teachers, church ministers, and underground Christians drove anticolonial resistance in Imperial Japan. This fierce tenacity reveals an aversion to injustice, violence, and oppression, one rooted fundamentally in the promises of a just and faithful God. While some difficulty remains in disentangling the intimacy between Christianity and colonialism, particularly as the worst manifestations of Judeo-Christian jurisprudence continue to provoke debates in postcolonial nations, anticolonial movements rooted in the church reveal the convergence of decolonisation and Christianity. I have found assurance in these nuances and continue to cling to faith in affirming the struggle for humanity within the enterprise of academic decolonisation and embracing the opportunities for forgiveness and reconciliation.


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The study of literature continues to be a powerful discipline, for it is literature that often illustrates the kind of world we’d like to live in. Literature exposes the ways that we have continued to lose sight of what it is to affirm one another’s humanity. For every instance of dehumanisation, and injustice we encounter in the texts we read, there yields a deep moment of emotive identification and reflection. As Mariam Abdel-Razek has mentioned, “Every student of English became one because they’ve been moved or touched by something they’ve read”. The hope we share is for a world in which these things are pared away, but it falls to each of us to see how our own engagements with our academic work and larger society can bring this to fruition. Our convictions may be different, but this hope continues to bind us in solidarity.  

To know others and to be known ourselves– perhaps this is what we believe to be the primary goal of learning to be empathetic, one that transforms the ways we treat one another. The generosity of my interviewees has offered a glimpse of the community we could hope to see in the English Faculty, one characterised by the same grace in the way we tell our stories and affirm the difficulties that our peers face.

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