“I know nothing in the world that has as much power as a word. Sometimes I write one, and I look at it, until it begins to shine.” (Emily Dickinson)
“We fret about words we writers. Words mean. Words point. They are arrows. Arrows stuck in the rough hide of reality.” (Susan Sontag)
Literature is a storehouse, a repository of words and stories which can travel across borders and across time. In March 2016, I was visiting Margate, a town on the Kent coast, when by chance I wandered into Turner Contemporary, an expansive gallery hugging the seafront. The Brexit referendum was still a few months off, but puffed-up promises of a new Britain, standing fearlessly alone and breaking free from its closest neighbours in Europe trung tam tieng nhat, were swirling.
As I stepped into the quiet of the museum, I found myself in a huge room, brightly lined from ceiling to floor with batik-covered books, an installation by leading British-Nigerian artist, Yinka Shonibare, and named, The British Library. As famous names jumped out from gold-embossed spines – Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, Joseph Conrad, Oscar Wilde, Salman Rushdie, Zadie Smith – I began to realise that almost all were linked to migration and to Britain. Through the collection of stories lining the shelves, this long history was being placed centre-stage.
At first, I was enthralled by the invented library due to my recognition of a history and community of migration narratives to which I felt I could belong. Not only was I familiar with some of the names of authors on the shelves but in some cases knew the writers personally as well as their histories. Yet, looking closely made me aware that the “library” represented more than one artist’s intimate vision, or any single pathway into history; it was also a performative public space, confronting viewers with multiple and sometimes competing narratives.
Indeed, whilst the weight of over 6,000 names seemingly cemented a vision of a more hospitable Britain, it was clear the exhibit was not simply offering a smooth, neatly conjured story, flagging the rich jewels of a history of migration or, positing what has come to be commonly known as the celebratory narrative of the “good immigrant”.
Unlike the vision –highlighted at the opening of the London 2012 Olympics ceremony – of a buoyant rainbow Britain, seemingly at ease with its diversity, but nevertheless masking the latent hostilities already experienced by Britain’s black citizens and soon to become the Windrush scandal, I noticed many names also present – Oswald Mosely, GK Chesterton, Enoch Powell and more recently, Nigel Farage – were notorious for their xenophobic and loudly expressed anti-immigration stance. Other spines had no names at all, perhaps leaving, as the artist has intimated, the future open.
This experience took me back to a journey I’d made myself many years before, at school in the early 1970s and later, when I was inspired to launch Wasafiri, the magazine of international contemporary writing which this special anthology of essays partly celebrates. As a child of mixed Indian-English background, spending my teenage years in a provincial Suffolk town, the closest I got to India was through a chance encounter with EM Forster whose famous 1924 novel, A Passage to India, suddenly appeared without context on a reading list in my school sixth form.
And whilst I recall that my mother’s bookshelves were populated by a sprinkling of books, wedged between English classics, by Rabindranath Tagore, Mulk Raj Anand, RK Narayan, Anita Desai, Ruth Prawer Jhabwala – a grouping I now realise reflected my family’s moves between India, England and Europe – I was not interested then in how they had got there. It was some time before I was able see the many mixed cultural forces which had always impacted on traditional canonical English figures such as Chaucer, Shakespeare, the Brontes, Henry James, TS Eliot.
And, it was only later when studying on an undergraduate degree at the University of Kent – on a course almost unique in British universities at the time – that I began, through an immersion in the works of now internationally distinguished writers, such as Derek Walcott, Jean Rhys, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, VS Naipaul, Sam Selvon or Kamala Markandaya, to gain access to a literary world that reflected anything near the mixed experience of my own.