Interview with R. Victoria Arana

R. Victoria Arana was born in Lima, Peru. She is a graduate of Vassar College, Princeton University, and the George Washington University – where, respectively, she studied Romance languages and literatures, Middle Eastern culture and literature, and English literature and literary criticism. Today, she teaches in the English department at Howard University. Her most recent publication is World Poetry from 1900 to the Present (NY: Facts on File, 2007). Here she talks with FPIF’s E. Ethelbert Miller about new black literature in Britain and its take on empire.

E. Ethelbert Miller: How did you become interested in the literature written by black writers in Britain?

R. Victoria Arana: I have been teaching 20th-century (and now 21st-century) British literature on both undergraduate and graduate levels for three decades, over which time black British writing has proliferated and flourished – to such a remarkable degree that, arguably, some of the most dazzling writing coming out of Britain in recent times has been from writers the British call “black.” Many of those writers have fans around the globe, and their fiction, especially, is being translated into dozens of the world’s languages. The appeal of this literature is its relevance to our times, to what is going on in the world today.

Some black British writers have cultural roots in the Caribbean, for instance Caryl Phillips, V. S. Naipaul, Fred D’Aguiar, David Dabydeen, Zadie Smith, Courttia Newland, Alex Wheatle, Andrea Levy, Joseph Anthony, Dorothea Smartt, Benjamin Zephaniah. Others have roots in the East, for instance Hanif Kureishi, Kazuo Ishiguro, Timothy Mo, Anita Desai, Vikram Seth, Salman Rushdie, Meera Syal, Monica Ali. Still others are African-born or the children (and now grandchildren!) of Africans, for instance Buchi Emecheta, Ben Okri, Chris Abani, Diran Adebayo, Bernardine Evaristo, Jackie Kay, Lemn Sissay, SuAndi, Maud Sulter, Rommi Smith, Aminatta Forna – to name just a handful.

Their writing, especially if studied in cultural and historical contexts, reveals new attitudes toward the world, fashioned out of a rich array of cultural legacies and youthful anticipations. I would have been remiss not to have become keenly interested in this new phenotype of British writing. I read everything I can get my hands on. I put the works on my syllabuses.

Miller: Briefly describe the political, social and economic issues that have shaped the literature.

Arana: Scholars have conveniently labeled this particular “boom” a case of the “Empire writing back.” The first wave of black British writers (from 1950 though the 1980s) considered themselves post-colonial and addressed issues relating to colonialism, its cultural legacies and hang-ups. Those British-born writers publishing in the 1990s and 2000s, however, tend to think of themselves as more forward-looking, more concerned with contemporary life in Britain and their connections to people all around the world, not even necessarily to the countries from which their forbears emigrated.

As colony after colony declared independence after World War II, many creative people from the former British Empire gravitated to England and Scotland to continue their educations or because they imagined that they might have brighter economic futures there than in the Caribbean or in their (often strife-torn) homelands – and because, having been educated in the British system in their birthplaces, they felt greater intellectual kinship to Britain than to other places, more cultural affinity (let’s say) to London than to Washington, D.C. James Procter, in his study of the writings of those who emigrated from former colonies to Britain after World War II (Dwelling Places: Postwar Black British Writing, 2003), and C.L. Innes, in her impressive A History of Black and Asian Writing in Britain: 1700-2000 (2002), are only two of the growing number of literary historians and literary critics who have undertaken the complex and challenging task of describing the interlocking political, social, and economical issues that, first, drove post-colonials to the British Isles, then conditioned their lives there and, ultimately, inspired what they wrote and are still writing about.

Miller: What important themes are writers examining?

Arana: I find that so many of these writers are speaking truth to power. Their novels treat the day-to-day predicaments that blacks, whites, and mixed-race individuals, around the world, find themselves in, and they give a delicious black British spin to a whole range of social themes we might expect novelists anywhere to treat. The British establishment is addressing the issues that these writers raise – and they are doing so through programs like “Re-Inventing Britain” and by engaging the writers in cultural work through a wide variety of agencies.

Britain today is not what it was before World War II. It is black Britons, largely, who have changed British society – and even the British economy. Black British writers have unveiled and critiqued Britain’s creaking welfare state, educational system, foster care practices, and neighborhood mores. Their novels and short stories explore all aspects of life: home, love, sex, marriage, children, work; and they do so with wit, passionate intelligence, and great good humor. Their poems, too, sound out many of the same themes, imbuing the language with the verve and originality that come from artistic legacies inherited from nearly every corner of the old British Empire.

Miller: How do black writers in Britain approach their writing while living in an empire that has seen a political decline?

Arana: The fact of the decline per se for many is seen as a plus since it means that the empire is not over-lording and exploiting colonies in the old ways. Benjamin Zephaniah, for example, an edgy, radical poet from Birmingham with a huge following in England, was offered an Order of the British Empire, a highly coveted honor, and he flatly turned it down, quipping that the Queen must not have been reading any of his poetry before deciding on the award or he certainly would not have been named. His rejection of the title hasn’t hurt him with the establishment; he is a regular recipient of generous prizes and travel funds to visit foreign lands as a cultural emissary of Britain. Bernardine Evaristo’s The Empire’s Babe, a novel in verse set in 211 AD, features Britannia as a remote and wild colony of the Roman Empire under an African-born emperor, Septimus Severus, a real historical figure. But the work is a thinly veiled spoof of contemporary Britain and its status as a declining world power, a homeland full of contradictions and a little more lovable than it would have been at the height of its imperiousness.

Miller: Are they still affected by the large issues of capitalism and colonization?

Arana: Oh, yes. Contemporary black british writers take up all sorts of social issues, and a newish sort of “green” critique of capitalist excesses pops up fairly regularly these days. Courttia Newland’s fiction addresses underworld capitalism; Diran Adebayo’s fiction satirizes the capitalism of the hip hop generation. Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is a tour de force critique of tendencies in medical technology; it combines a chilling, futuristic description of industrialized human cloning, socialization that fosters uncritical self-sacrifice, and a maudlin continuation of stereotypical British folkways. Zephaniah’s jeremiads in Too Black, Too Strong and Martin Glynn’s folk-based fables (recorded for educational purposes in his work with prison inmates) come immediately to mind as well, and these two are not the only poets who write against greed and globalization. Andrea Levy’s fiction examines the lingering effect of colonization on the manners and mores of descendants of formerly colonized people in the Caribbean and West Africa. Aminatta Forna’s prize-winning partly autobiographical and partly biographical The Devil that Danced on the Water is the story of her politically active, Scottish-educated father, Mohamed Forna, who returned as a doctor to his native Sierra Leone and rose as a political figure in that newly decolonized country only to be jailed then executed by corrupt post-colonial authorities. Chris Abani’s poetry in Kalakuta Republic powerfully describes his own imprisonment and torture as a Nigerian political figure. The trauma of colonization continues to play out in the behavior of post-colonials, for good or evil, and this generation of writers is not averse to addressing the realities in their writing. And these writers represent only a tiny fraction of what goes on in contemporary black British literature!

Miller: Which is more important in the literature, race or class?

Arana: Race and class are equally important – but more or less taken for granted and featured less and less as big issues by the youngest writers. I would add that the most significant aspect of the new writing is that, while the race and class dimensions of life are not glossed over, the story lines emphasize not bigotry, classist attitudes, and social entitlements, but rather personal and collective responsibilities. The new black British writers are interested in diversity – in differing cultural ethnicities, ethics, manners, and mores. They are positive and optimistic and artistically experimental.

Miller: Can you recommend a good anthology that would introduce the general reader to black writers in Britain? And what young writers deserve watching and why?

Arana: New anthologies are crying to be born! So far there is none in print. Lemn Sissay’s now classic The Fire People: A Collection of Contemporary Black British Poets (Edinburgh, Scotland: Payback Press, 1998) and Courttia Newland and Kadija Sesay’s IC3: The Penguin Book of New Black Writing (2000) are both out of print. I have just edited a forthcoming Dictionary of Literary Biography volume (Contemporary Black British Writers), which should help inspire anthologizers. In the meantime, the most comprehensive bibliography of primary works by (as well as secondary works about) contemporary “black” British writing is at the back of my “Black” British Aesthetics Today (Cambridge Scholars Publishers, 2007).

In terms of young writers, how young do you want me to go? All of the rest of the writers I’ve mentioned are young and deserving of attention. Seriously, besides Zadie Smith and Andrea Levy, I would recommend keeping an eye on novelists Monica Ali, Aminatta Forna, Courttia Newland, Leone Ross, and Alex Wheatle. Some of the poets to follow closely are Joseph Anthony, Martin Glynn, SuAndi, Rommi Smith, and Benjamin Zephaniah. Meera Syal, Michael McMillan, and Lemn Sissay are multi-genre writers, who have had successes variously as playwrights, poets, novelists, and movie scriptwriters.

But I am scratching the surface here. There are literally hundreds of young and up-and-coming creative writers emerging in the British Isles who are becoming better known by the day, and many have already won national and international prizes for their works. Nigerian-born Helen Oyeyemi, for instance, who is in her early twenties and has been a permanent resident of England since very early childhood, has already published two highly acclaimed novels (The Icarus Girl and The Opposite House); Oyeyemi at this point considers herself as much British as Nigerian, in complex ways. This sort of cross-pollination, I believe, is what distinguishes the young black British writers’ works.

R. Victoria Arana teaches in the English department at Howard University. Her most recent publication is World Poetry from 1900 to the Present (NY: Facts on File, 2007). E. Ethelbert Miller is an award-winning poet, the director of the African American Resource Center at Howard University, and the board chairperson of the Institute for Policy Studies. His interviews are a regular feature of Fiesta.