Cultural diversity and global reach
By Gabriel Gbadamosi
I’ve come to believe that we’re living through a golden age of English literature in the UK. The present cultural diversity of our writers – and that includes those who are white British – gives to our literature a multiplicity of perspectives, a newness, an energy, an unpredictability and a global reach that is unique in our lifetimes and our history.
As the solitary black student studying English at my university from 1980, learning the history and development of its literature as an academic discipline, a bounded area of study, that possibility never occurred to me. Until, that is, I began to work on setting up WritersMosaic, encouraging a progressive mapping of contemporary diversity in UK literature with and through other writers of colour. I’m three years in, and I can’t see to the end of this expanding, kaleidoscopic task. This is a short note about what I see, and how I’ve come to be wrongfooted by the implications and ironies of being so lately involved in a new age of discovery.
First of all, in case you’d wonder, what is a golden age? What would I or anyone else see it as, aside from a long, lazy backward glance at former glories the abysmal present couldn’t hope to match in achievement and splendour? Let’s have done with ‘golden ages’, I’ve always thought, embedded in wars, conquest, expansion and power structures. What is a language, but a dialect with an army? What is envy of the past, but despair of the future? I’m puritan enough to see the golden allure as a snare and a delusion. And Catholic enough (I’m both by education and upbringing) to measure an age by its secular limits, as that which belongs to a generation or related generations and passes away – nothing eternal or sacred about it. Except that I’ve always liked to connect the dots of cumulative achievement, learning from past writers as if they were my contemporaries in the language. I have, by that reckoning, contemporaries up to 700 years old and counting in Britain, before even I open a page written in India or Nigeria, Ireland or the United States.
What marks out periods as in any sense ‘golden’ for me is change – alchemical change – an intense and vividly realised gear change in Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying over altered, imaginative landscapes of desert, oceans, rainforest, urban sprawl, cool interiors and ghettos, the very nature of the societies in which we live and the structures of feeling through which we speak. As I say, I now feel we have entered such a period in our literature in these islands. You don’t need to follow me in this account, you can have your own feelings about it; but this is my experience as a reader and writer.
Setting aside the formation of English from the various Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse, Germanic dialects, its admixtures of Norman and Angevin French (‘catch’ and ‘chase’ having been the same French word, differently pronounced), the holdovers from an earlier British (‘pig’ or ‘dog’, for instance), medieval Latin and Greek (‘et cetera’, ‘utopia’), and, later, imperial, expansionist borrowings for climate (‘monsoon’, ‘hurricane’) or trade goods (‘calico’, ‘chai’, ’pyjamas’) – the list goes on for what was and continues to be a medium of trade and exchange (and learning, particularly from Arabic – ‘arithmetic’, ‘alphabet’, ‘alcohol’) – I light on the medieval period of Geoffrey Chaucer, the Gawain poet, William Langland, the Wakefield Master, William Dunbar in Scotland and (my favourite everywhere) Anonymous. Among those poets, scribes and makers of Mystery plays and courtly love, regional Englishes were still in flux – the Gawain poet in the north, Langland in the west, Chaucer, with what became the dominant dialect, from London and the south-east. Varieties of English have been a feature of the language since its beginning, and a vernacular literature, in English, had been launched.
With printing and translations of the Bible into English, culminating in the King James version, come the Elizabethans and Jacobeans as writers with a widening readership (usually male), supplemented by audiences for the readings, masques, plays and sermons. There’s William Shakespeare, of course, influenced by past writers from Ovid and Plutarch to Petrarch and Chaucer and by his contemporaries from Marlowe to Montaigne, but book-ended in the period by many more, from Edmund Spenser and Philip Sidney to Ben Jonson and Thomas Middleton, from John Donne and Andrew Marvell to John Milton. More great writers and writing than you can shake a stick at. In fact, the golden age of early modern English, with its European Renaissance learning and wider borrowings.
Now, although the eighteenth century was fascinating for its theatre, architecture, fashion and music, and of course its development of the first dictionary and experiments with the novel – think of the anarchic structure and typefaces of Jonathan Swift’s A Tale of a Tub or that black page of printer’s ink in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy – the next golden age in English literature has to be the Romantic period – that revolution in thought and feeling, beholden to the French and open to the Germans. If before, God created man, after that change of consciousness (on its way to us since the Copernican revolution) Man created god – and reached for the moon and the stars in his own spaceship with his own telescopes (Caroline Herschel, alongside her brother William, was a notable astronomer). You’d notice the change. That central tale of Frankenstein, of Man as Creator, is, of course, the work of a woman, Mary Shelley, who with her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, ushers in a recentring of women’s voices. The poets, Blake, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats and Byron, are joined by essayists like Hazlitt and Lamb, later novelists, the Brontё sisters, and by scientists and philosophers from Joseph Banks and Michael Faraday to David Hume, Rousseau and Nietzsche. Many see this as a period of self-reinvention we are still living through.
The next golden age, hard on its heels, is Modernism: before we were living in two ups two downs, then there were skyscrapers – a revolution in form in which anything could happen, from pastiche in Ulysses and collage in ‘The Waste Land’ to the manifestos of futurism, constructivism, vorticism, surrealism and Dada. A structural change occurred, embedded in industrial revolution and technological change, and hurtling with explosive velocity into the 20th century.
Technology – you couldn’t miss the digital revolution – the globalisation of two world wars and financial deregulation following on from the end of the Cold War and collapse of the Berlin Wall, along with decolonisation and the mass migrations that followed, the largest within China, more recently from the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa to Europe – but climate change will accelerate and diversify that movement – and bearing in mind that over a million people a year migrated to the United States in the 1990s alone (13 million in a decade), all this change sets the background to the present, 21st century population diversity in the UK, in which 30% of all UK schoolchildren are non-white British (rising to 67% in London). Who is writing in the UK? Well, that’s just it, everyone is writing – Polish and Somali, Tanzanian and Bengali writers, writing in English, are what makes this an extraordinary period in the development of UK literature. Abdulrazak Gurnah, born in Zanzibar but writing and publishing in Britain since the 1960s, has taken the 2021 Nobel Prize for literature. I happen to know him, but not enough readers have been aware of his work, as he himself has pointed out in interviews around the prize.
I’ve realised through working on WritersMosaic that I have to reach from a Kashmiri novelist in north London and a Guyanese-Welsh cultural critic and writer in North Wales to a Trinidadian poet in Nottingham to gauge shifts in the meanings of empathy. An essay on translation by a Dalit writer in east London helps me to contextualise the struggle against inequality of an Irish-Jamaican playwright from Moss Side. And the plays of Chekhov are needed to grasp the frames of reference for a Brixton-based Nigerian playwright. I am astonished by the scale, breadth and complexity of this work and these interactions, across time and culture – the Bengali-Scottish crime writer’s engagement with Agatha Christie and Tartan Noir, the Belfast-based Jewish refugee writer’s historical parable of extermination camps written during the communal violence in the north of Ireland. The examples are just that, samples of an explosion of creative literature across art form, in all genres and in the new digital media formats as well as in live performance. The present golden age of our literature is still unfolding, beyond previous boundaries, and not from any centre but in all directions.
Doesn’t a ‘golden age’ need ‘genius’ at the heart of it? Who has arisen in the language to take us to that next level? Where’s the Messiah? Well, forgive me for ducking a romantic nationalist view of the great writer or blocking the commercial hard sell of this or that one as the next best thing in the culture. What characterises this golden age for me is the multiplicity of its voices, the many different energies, histories and trajectories of the writers as they go about their business. All of we is one goes the Jamaican phrase, and that for me is the presiding genius of this golden age – now – of literature in the UK.