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Writing

A new website, writersmakeworlds.com, has been launched at Oxford today (16 October).

Postcolonial Writers Make Worlds asks how our reading of British literature shapes our sense of identity in Britain today. It focuses in particular on how Black and Asian writing in Britain might give us new ways to think about Britain in the world.

In a guest post, the project leaders Elleke Boehmer (Professor of World Literatures) and Erica Lombard (Postdoctoral Research Fellow) explain their research:

Recent global developments have sharply polarised communities in many countries around the world. A new politics of exclusion has drawn urgent attention to the ways in which structural inequality has marginalised and silenced certain sectors of society. And yet, as a recent report shows, diversity and inclusion in fact “benefit the common good”. A more diverse group is a stronger, more creative and productive group.

In the world of literary writing, we find similar gaps and exclusions. But these are counterbalanced in some respects by new positive initiatives.

In 2015, a study revealed that literature by writers of colour had been consistently under-represented by the predominantly white British book industry. Statistics in The Bookseller show that out of thousands of books published in 2016 in the UK, fewer than 100 were by British authors of a non-white background. And out of 400 authors identified by the British public in a 2017 Royal Society of Literature survey, only 7% were black, Asian or of mixed race (compared to 13% of the population).

A similar marginalisation takes place in the curricula in schools and universities, mirroring exclusions in wider society. In most English literature courses of whatever period, the writers taught are white, largely English and largely male.

A fundamental inequality arises in which, though British culture at large is diverse, syllabuses are not. Indeed, many British readers and students find little to recognise or to identify with when they read and study mainstream British literature.

But it’s not just a case of under-representation. It’s also a case of misrepresentation.

Black and Asian writers who have been published within the mainstream British system describe the pressure they have felt to conform to cultural stereotypes in their work. Their books are often packaged and presented in ways that focus on their ethnicity, regularly using cliches.

At the same time, more universal aspects of their writing are overlooked. For example, the covers of novels by Asian British writers usually stick to a limited colour palette of yellows, reds, and purples, accented by “exotic” images.

These writers bristle at the sense that they are read not as crafters of words and worlds, but as spokespeople for their communities or cultures. At its worst, this process turns these writers and their books into objects of anthropological curiosity rather than works inviting serious literary study or simply pleasurable reading. The message is that black and Asian literature is other than or outside mainstream British writing.

Against these exclusions, leading British authors such as Bernardine Evaristo and others have urged for a broader, more inclusive approach. They recognise that what and how we read shapes our sense of ourselves, our communities and the world.

The Postcolonial Writers Make Worlds research project, based in the Oxford English Faculty and The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities, set out to ask what it means to read contemporary fiction as British readers. Working with reading groups and in discussion with writers, we found that readers of all ages entered the relatively unfamiliar worlds created by BAME authors with interest.

For many, finding points of familiarity along gender, age, geographical or other lines was important for their ability to enjoy stories from communities different from their own. Identifying in this way gave some readers new perspectives on their own contexts.

At the same time, unfamiliarity was not a barrier to identification. In some cases, universal human stories, like falling in love, acted as a bridge. This suggests that how literature is presented to readers, whether it is framed as other or not, can be as significant as what is represented.

Contemporary black and Asian writing from the UK is British writing. And this means that the work of writers such as Evaristo, Nadifa Mohamed and Daljit Nagra be placed on the same library shelf, reading list and section of the bookshop as work by Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes and Ali Smith – not exclusively in “world interest” or “global literature”.

Equally, much can be gained by thinking of white British writers like Alan Hollinghurst or Hilary Mantel as having as much of a cross-cultural or even postcolonial outlook as Aminatta Forna and Kamila Shamsie.

There are positive signs. A new EdExcel/Pearson A-level teaching resource on Contemporary Black British Literature has been developed. The Why is My Curriculum White? campaign continues to make inroads in university syllabuses. And the Jhalak Prize is raising the profile of BAME writing in Britain. Against this background, the Postcolonial Writers Make Worlds website offers a multimedia hub of resources on black and Asian British writing, providing points of departure for more inclusive, wide-ranging courses. Yet there is still much to be done.

All literature written in English in the British Isles is densely entangled with other histories, cultures, and pathways of experience both within the country and far beyond. Its syllabuses, publishing practices, and our conversations about books must reflect this.

This article has also been published on The Conversation.

Roman

Retweeting the Romans

Matt Pickles | 21 Sep 2017

As an expert on the literature of the Roman Republic and an avid viewer of the recent ITV show Love Island, Oxford classicist Dr Andrew Sillett was always going to try watching Bromans.

The new ITV programme is billed as a “gladiator reality show” which claims to send “eight modern-day lads back in time to see if they can cope with living and fighting like Roman gladiators”.

As he settled down to watch the first episode last week, Dr Sillett tweeted his reactions.

His tweets went viral – they were retweeted by dozens of other users and media outlets.

At the end of the show, he concluded: "10/10 will watch again."

“The interest my tweeting generated came as something of a surprise,” he tells Arts Blog.

“In all honesty, I didn't come to Bromans from an academic angle, it just followed on naturally from a summer spent in the company of Love Island. “All the responses I've received have been very friendly and supportive (which is hardly to be taken for granted on Twitter...).”

Andrew is evangelical about the importance of public engagement with a wide audience.

“I came to Classics from a bit of a standing start myself, as my school didn't offer Latin, Greek, Classical Civilisation or anything like that,” he says.

“Not that it was anything like Bromans that caught my interest ten years ago, that was a talk from Brasenose's Llewelyn Morgan (who bears only a passing reference to the gladiators of Bromans).

“Nonetheless I think it's undoubtedly important to be aware of what sort of contact the majority of people have with your subject.”

It is unlikely that many viewers of Bromans assumed it was a realistic depiction of Rome - but Dr Sillett says it did capture certain aspects of life in the Republic.

“In the run-up to Bromans airing I encountered a lot of snootiness in relation to the show's vulgarity, but I think that rather misses the point,” he says.

“Rome wasn't all marble, rhetoric and epic poetry, it had a popular culture of its own that was coarse, sweaty and physical.

“I think Bromans captures that as well as, say Ridley Scott's Gladiator; there's plenty ITV2 can teach us.”

Dr Sillett is a lecturer in the Faculty of Classics, specialising in the literature of the late Roman Republic and early Empire.

You can read more of his thoughts on Bromans here, and follow him on Twitter here.

Oh, and because I know everyone reading this blog was about to Google it anyway, you can watch the show here.

Zoology lab

Cutting-edge science research in gleaming laboratories. Undergraduates defending their essays to a world expert in the field in a tutorial. The tortoises who take part in an annual inter-college race.

This diverse group of people – and reptiles – are the stars of a new exhibition of photography by Magnum photographer Martin Parr.

Martin Parr: Oxford is a free exhibition that forms part of Photo Oxford 2017 (8 – 24 Sept) and will run from 8 September to 22 October 2017 at the Weston Library.

As part of the commission, Mr Parr was given access to many of the University’s most iconic buildings and events. He told Vice that he enjoyed the project.

“[Oxford] has everything. It has tradition, it's on the cutting edge of research, it's evolving yet staying still,” he said.

“It was meant to be one year's project; it became two years. I don't know how many trips I made there, 50 or 60. I could have gone on for ten years. Once you start digging, you realise the complexity of a place.”

‘Martin Parr has brought his unique viewpoint to the University and we are delighted to be able to show some of his images opening up Oxford at this free exhibition in the Weston Library,’ says Richard Ovenden, Bodley’s Librarian.

‘Martin strongly supported the Bodleian’s campaign to acquire the archive of William Henry Fox Talbot, who made the first photographic journey to Oxford in the 1840s, and I’m sure this new collection, looking at the many different aspects of Oxford life will be of huge interest to Martin’s fans, local residents, visitors and alumni alike.

'This is a rare opportunity to see work of a brilliant photographer who normally only exhibits at larger international galleries.’

A one day symposium featuring talks by the Photo Oxford 2017 artists will run at the Weston Library on Thursday 7 September. The publication OXFORD Martin Parr, by Oxford University Press, is available to pre-order online.

The Roman theatre at Catania, Sicily

An Oxford classicist has worked with Italian secondary-school students to create an award-winning new exhibition in Sicily, cataloguing stone inscriptions from the Roman period.

Dr Jonathan Prag, of Oxford’s Faculty of Classics, worked in collaboration with students from the Liceo Artistico Statale M.M. Lazzaro in Catania, Sicily, to create the exhibition, entitled ‘Voci di Pietra’ (‘Voices of stone’).

The exhibition, which is housed in the Norman castle that now serves as Catania’s civic museum, features artefacts between 1500 and 2500 years old, including funerary inscriptions, sculptures, and fragments of buildings, as well as video installations created by the students.

These texts are important because they are contemporary documents. They very often provide information about specific events and private individuals, of a type that is not recorded elsewhere. Inscriptions provide a vast body of information on religious beliefs, naming practices, language, and much more.

Dr Jonathan Prag

Catania was originally a Greek city, and was re-founded as a Roman colony, so the inscriptions are in a mixture of Greek and Latin. The inscriptions provide valuable information both about economics and diplomacy in ancient Catania, and about the private lives of individuals in the city. 

One intriguing item is a funeral inscription for a Jewish Roman citizen called Aurelius Samohil (i.e. “Samuel”), from 383 AD (pictured below). This is written in a mixture of Latin and Hebrew, and constitutes the longest Latin text from the ancient Jewish diaspora in the Roman world. The inscription contains a triple warning to posterity not to break into the tomb where Aurelius Samohil and his wife Lassia Irene were buried. This and other texts suggest there was a strong Jewish community in Catania.

Funeral Inscription of Aurelius Samohil"The warning against breaking into or reusing the tomb is particularly nice and unusual because it appeals simultaneously to the authority of the Roman emperors, the Jewish patriarchs, and Talmudic law." - Jonathan Prag

The students, who won a prize for their work from the Italian Ministry of Education, worked on the exhibition between 2015 and 2017. They were involved in locating, cleaning and recording the exhibits, as well as presenting them in novel ways – for instance, they designed a reconstruction of a columbarium, a type of Roman tomb. They will use the prize to visit Oxford this autumn.

 “The enthusiasm and engagement of the students went well beyond anything I had seen elsewhere or expected,” said Dr Prag, who undertook the project as a Knowledge Exchange Fellow at the Oxford Research Centre for the Humanities (TORCH). “They did not have a background in classical studies, but they brought serious artistic flair and a very high level of observation and skill. The end result – a highly professional permanent exhibition – is certainly beyond my original expectations.”

He adds that one of his favourite exhibits is “the rather wonderful video of a very elderly retired stone mason from Catania whom the students found and interviewed, in order to learn about the actual practicalities of engraving on stone”. The students used what they learned from him to create their own inscription as a record of the exhibition.

Dr Prag is now working on a larger project called I.Sicily, which aims to create an online archive of Sicilian inscriptions, reflecting the diverse languages spoken on the island in ancient times.

Utahraptor

One dinosaur, free to a good home.

This was the call from Oxford University's Museum of Natural History last year, when they asked the public for suggestions for where they should relocate their four-metre long model of a Utahraptor.

The dinosaur has definitely found a good home: it has now been installed at the Children’s Hospital at Oxford’s John Radcliffe Hospital.

The Museum acquired the model in 2000, and it spent time terrorising shoppers at Blackwell’s book shop as part of the Museum’s Goes To Town project in 2014.

But following a reorganisation of the Museum’s collections, it asked for nominations for somewhere to send the dinosaur.

200 venues around the world put in their bids, but the winning one came from Sarah Fletcher, who thought the dinosaur could amaze and inspire the young patients at the hospital.

“The idea of having a model Utahraptor in the hospital seemed like a lot of fun,” she said.

“Having been through the Children’s Hospital with my family, I knew that it would make such a difference to everyone who walks through those doors.

“But I never thought in a million years that we would win it – I am thrilled!”

Hannah Allum, Project Manager at the Museum, is delighted with the outcome. “I hope that the Utahraptor will delight patients and visitors,” she said.

“It’s a nice thought that this Cretaceous character will bring a little piece of the Museum into the hospital environment.”

The dinosaur is now in place, looking down on the entrance to the Children’s Hospital.