"This is a love letter to those whose paths I have crossed and shared in this journey, to those who will continue the important work being achieved, within Cambridge and around the world."Simon Lock

For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be part-white. Not fully white – just 20% white would do; white enough not to be ashamed of my mixed Asian heritage.

This was not something I understood consciously. Rather, it was embedded in the very essence of my upbringing. At the age of seven, I skimmed through an unabridged version of Shakespeare’s collected works. As I grew older, I developed an unashamedly ‘British’ accent after watching Simon Cowell on television, gradually erasing my Manglish inflections and cadences. My current voice bears Home Counties trappings – ‘class’, ‘bath’ and ‘path’ pronounced in a way that would put Jacob Rees-Mogg to shame. Hailing from Malaysia and having never stepped foot in the United Kingdom until I came here for university, this remains, of course, incredibly out-of-place at best, and pretentious at worst.

Love Letters to Cambridge

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More importantly, this was an ossified symbol of the reproduction of colonial knowledge in every fibre of my being. I grew up being taught seemingly contradictory ideas: to embrace ‘diversity’, while fashioning myself to suit the Western educational model and its underpinning colonialism. Shakespeare was more ‘valuable’ than knowing writers from my numerous cultures, such as Arundhati Roy and Tash Aw. This value judgment is reiterated by the Cambridge English Faculty’s insistence to teach an entire, compulsory term on Shakespeare alone.

Sitting in a Medieval lecture in my first term at Cambridge, then, posed a radical challenge to my entire worldview. It suddenly occurred to me that Eurocentric models of Christianity and life, amongst other strands of thought, in every pale, male and stale medieval text (except Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich), bore no relevance to my identity. Why was I expected to not only have a working knowledge of Latin by my supervisor, but to somehow also possess a sophisticated understanding of the Bible?

My first year at Cambridge was marked by feelings of deep inadequacy, questioning my sense of epistemic belonging. Simultaneously, I was lurched into discovering severe clinical depression and other mental health issues, which my therapist and I have since established as partly linked to how ‘Othered’ I felt as a Malaysian woman, reading English in a space that clearly wasn’t designed for someone like me.

"Nonetheless, this profound pain has imbued within me the pricelessness of solidarity and love."Louis Ashworth

Somewhere amongst this, I came across the idea of ‘decolonising the canon’. Peers from varying backgrounds had spoken about it, and I stumbled upon Lola Olufemi’s amazing work at the University. I decided, at the start of second-year, to run for Undergraduate Faculty Representative to the English Faculty, to enact change on a structural level. This would turn out to be a touchstone to guide me through my three years at Cambridge: I had finally found a way to read English while challenging the ‘canon’ I had grown to personally dislike. I could finally channel my deep-seated anger productively, interrogating all that I did via the lens of decolonisation. More importantly, I could stop trying to be someone I’m not and start being the person I have always been.

In ‘Decolonizing the University’, Dalia Gebriel writes aptly about the effort extending beyond universities: “To do this kind of work [decolonisation] in the university is to dig where you are [...] rather than to view the university as the primary space where transformation happens [...] the university space as a transformative force, to connect what is happening inside the institution to the outside…”

“[I have] Boundless love for a cause that carves spaces for people like myself...”

During my tenure as faculty representative, decolonising developed my awareness of my own positionality, enabling my growth as a scholar. More importantly, I was a member of society committed to a shared cause. I could go beyond myself to enact structural and social change, while simultaneously acknowledging the reasons that drive my work – acutely personal reasons, that have grown into a focus on the big picture. I was quick to learn, however, that a number of high-ranking individuals within the Faculty were actively unaware of what decolonising meant on a wider level. A common notion surrounding decolonisation involves ‘diversifying’ the canon through including a few BAME authors for ‘representation’. ‘Diversity’ is used as a broad term, often as a synonym for decolonisation, which is emphatically untrue.

I have exited numerous Faculty meetings and supervisions broken and beyond repair. My closest friends have noted that most of our conversations revolve around the failure of the English Faculty to go beyond individualistic notions of decolonisation. I have invested countless hours in therapy, trying to make sense of the institutional racism and emotional labour I have had to bear as a WoC, trying to explain why decolonisation is academically robust and integral to honest pedagogy.

I’ve tried to make sense of why I’ve had to prove that an examination of ‘travel writing’ from Mandeville onwards, without underpinning decolonisation, is plainly poor scholarship. These dynamics were replicated in a majority of my Part I supervisions, where supervisors were often unable, and sometimes unwilling, to offer any sort of thought concerning Empire and race – so much so that I’ve written my own reading lists for all three years of my degree.


Mountain View

Exit, pursued by a pandemic

Nonetheless, this profound pain has imbued within me the pricelessness of solidarity and love. Solidarity in BAME-specific contexts, where I grew to understand my cultural identity. Solidarity in the life-changing conversations I’ve had with peers and scholars alike, demonstrating a common will to enact decolonising as a catalyst to wider social change, within the university and beyond. Solidarity in the friendships made, from that same will. Love for the lecturers and supervisors I had during the postcolonial module, as they encouraged myself and many peers from BAME backgrounds to speak in our own voices – to resist the Western university and its active enactment of colonial pedagogy. Boundless love for a cause that carves spaces for people like myself, without losing sight of decolonisation as an interrogation of structures rather than individual betterment within pre-existing structures.

The potency of this love will remain for a lifetime; I carry it within me as I further my academic career, hoping to express the drumming resonance decolonisation bears within academia, in all academic work I hope to do. This is a love letter to those whose paths I have crossed and shared in this journey, to those who will continue the important work being achieved, within Cambridge and around the world. Thank you for allowing this unashamedly brown girl in a white space to come to terms with herself.

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