Dr Malachi McIntosh, Lecturer in Postcolonial and Related Literatures, wonders what Britishness is, as Granta magazine publishes its influential, once-per-decade ‘Best of Young British Novelists’ list. Today, 9 May, he will chair a related discussion, ‘Literature and the Nation’, with American academic and cultural commentator Professor Cornel West and novelist Ben Okri.

Literature makes the writing of people born at all times in all places unite in ways that showcase something important that binds us tighter than the passports we carry.

Malachi McIntosh

I often find myself wondering what Britishness is: where it begins, where it ends and whether certain individuals can ever claim it without their claims being questioned. It’s been a good few years for reflection on our national identity. Margaret Thatcher’s recent passing inspired editorials, articles and interviews considering her legacy – her rescue or deformation of this thing we call ‘Britain’. The Olympics last year saw the most unrestrained celebrations of Britishness – and the most transcendent presence of the Union Jack – that many of us have ever witnessed. The riots in 2011 incited numerous pronouncements on why the rioters, because of their actions or – as David Starkey would have it in his infamous declaration on Newsnight that ‘the white have become black’ – because of their colour, were not, really, British like we are.

Add to this UKIP, the Scottish referendum, a royal marriage, the EU, educational reform pitched as a part of international economic competition, and the ever-present and seemingly ever-intensifying fear of immigrants, what is and isn’t Britishness has been, recently, everywhere.

I wonder what Britishness is in part because British national identity sits at the centre of my research. I’ve just completed a project that analyses the writing of World War II-era Caribbean migrants to Britain. This cohort, whose ranks include the likes of V S Naipaul, Samuel Selvon and George Lamming, arrived in and around the time of the Empire Windrush, landed in this country as British citizens, but quickly discovered that – despite their passports and full inculcation within a British educational system that taught them more about the ‘mother country’ than about their own home islands – they were not considered ‘British’ at all.  They were outsiders; members of a body of migrants initially welcomed as supporters of post-War reconstruction but then quickly refigured into strange presences and problematic occupants of the state. While they are ‘not workshy,’ claimed a Times columnist in 1954, ‘two immigrants have the productivity of about one good English workman’; they are ‘said not to like working in high temperatures, rather surprisingly, and some managers think the explanation is to be found in their inferior physique[s].’

The Caribbean writers I have spent the last several years reading, whose historical context I have slowly come to understand, were valued as authors only insofar as their work represented an ‘authentic’ image of the Caribbean and highlighted their difference from their British readers – the unspoken ‘us’ in the Times article above. Their reviewers praised depictions of places where, in the words of the Observer, the TLS and the Times of the era, ‘the problems of colour and of political freedom have brought conflicts for which no real solution is in sight’; where ‘the western heritage from the ancient Greeks is absent’; where the people are ‘emotional and excitable as children’. Difference, a not-us-ness, a not-Britishness, was sought and discovered by social and cultural commentators wherever they chose to look. The Caribbean colonies from which migrants sprung were regarded as fundamentally odd – as other worlds – as anything other than places owned, populated, and controlled by Britain for hundreds of years.

The reaction to this generation of Caribbean migrants rose again to my mind when reading Granta magazine’s current issue, devoted to their new crop of best ‘Young British Novelists’. As in any collection of this kind, some of the works selected shine brighter than others but what struck me as much as the merits of  the writing itself was the interesting way these writers’ ‘Britishness’ had to be framed. In light of all I’ve written above, it was unsurprising to see that the issue’s Introduction included comment on its authors’ origins, stating that there ‘are three writers with African backgrounds; one who was born in China and began only recently to write in English; another brought up on her parents’ sugar-cane farm in New South Wales; one from Pakistan, another from Bangladesh, a third a second-generation Indian from Derbyshire’. It was unsurprising, too, to see that this selection required the justification that ‘not once during our proceedings did we talk about the need for diversity, or gender balance, or a multiplicity of background’. These editorial reflections, for me, simply underscored the fact that not all Britons are created equally: that, for some, their ‘Britishness’ requires institutional support, and can never be straightforwardly claimed. The introductory comments also anticipate the type of online criticism offered in a response to an article about the Granta issue on the Telegraph website. Any number of comments could be selected, but my favourite, penned by someone using the pseudonym ‘sedge’,  lamented that Granta’s list promoted ‘mostly women and ethnic meeenorideees’, that ‘a celebration of multiculturalism […] seems more important that the quality of the writing these days’.

I often find myself wondering what Britishness is, in part, because of who I am. Born in Birmingham but raised in the United States, possessing clear memories of training my tongue to flatten the round vowels of the Midlands into the As and Os of New York, my own Britishness is something I and others have frequently questioned. (Often, here in the UK, I’m asked, ‘Where are you from?’; the common response to my response, ‘No, no. Where are you really from?’)

Thinkers in the field of postcolonial studies often present national identity as invented, as ‘narration’, as ‘imagined’, as a concept that is performed and policed, that requires constant assertions of what it is through declarations of what, and who, it isn’t. For many postcolonial scholars the nation is thus illegitimate, a way to construct out-groups – mainly foreigners and migrants, and in-groups – mainly the rich and/or educated in ways that enable exploitation. For many in this field, literature reveals the ways that aspects of national identity, presented as shared, singular traits – stiff upper lips, hard work, tolerance, fair play – are undermined by the day-to-day. In my eyes, literature does this and more besides. It is also a means to see the characteristics that transcend the nation, that make the writing of people born at all times in all places unite in ways that showcase something important that binds us tighter than the passports we carry. Whether that makes the nation, and Britain in particular, a notion that has reached its sell-by date remains, for me, open, undecided – a question that sits fixed as the final reason why I keep wondering what Britishness is.

Dr Malachi McIntosh's research in the Faculty of English and King's College focuses on representations of migrant and minoritised communities in contemporary Caribbean, British and American literature. He is a co-founder of the Contemporaries research group in the English department www.english.cam.ac.uk/research/contemporary/

For more information about the discussion, which is free and no registration required, visit http://www.crassh.cam.ac.uk/events/2411/ 


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