19 May 2021
As the days turn to dusk over the next week across north east United States, billions of Magicicada nymphs will burrow their way to the surface after spending seventeen years underground. Having already been delayed by cooler than average temperatures, some have already begun to appear in geographic patches where the soil has reached a critical temperature. You can follow this on the Cicada Safari app which uses photographs and data provided by citizen scientists to create a live map of their emergence.
This particular group of periodical cicadas are known as Brood X, or the Great Eastern Brood. The brood is endemic to fifteen states in the eastern United States. Up to 1.4 million cicadas per acre, totalling in the billions, emerge and climb nearby vegetation where they molt their nymph exoskeletons and emerge in their imago form.
The males proceed to group together and ‘sing’ to attract females. Once mated, the female cicadas lay their eggs. Within a few weeks, the adult cicadas pass away. Soon thereafter, the newly hatched nymphs emerge and return to the soil where they will remain until the next cycle in 2038.
Cicadas are endemic to most countries with warmer climates (there is only one species in the UK which is under threat of extinction and unique to the New Forest). Unsurprisingly then, cicadas’ presence in print is scattered across the natural history record, and they also regularly appear as a motif in literature. While there are over three hundred species of cicadas, periodical cicadas are unique to the United States.
The first known written record of a Magicicada brood was in a 1633 report by the governor of the Plymouth Colony, William Bradford. He notes the brood’s appearance in relation to a disease that killed many of the local Indigenous populations as well as the Plymouth settler colonists. His description illustrates how reliant the relatively recent settlers were on Indigenous knowledge to help them to navigate their unfamiliar natural environment, and how this 17-year event was both familiar to and held significance for the local tribes.
The following century, Swedish naturist Pehr Kalm wrote a lengthy essay on his witnessing of the emergence of what we now know as Brood X in 1749. His Description of a type of Grasshopper in North America, published in 1756, is an incredibly evocative and richly detailed account that gives a sense of how it must have felt to experience this phenomenon for the first time:
Among the many flying insects in North America there is a species of grass-hopper which seems to merit special discussion because of its extraordinary characteristics… Later, when I travelled through the Land of the Iroquois to the large waterfall Niagara, I heard its squall in the woods daily, for no matter where it is it does not remain silent for long…
These insects are extraordinary. They appear in astounding numbers with indescribable suddenness on certain years… In 1749, on the 22 of May, new style, these locusts or grasshoppers appeared in dreadful quantities in Pennsylvania. They had been lying in holes in the ground throughout the winter and spring like Eurcae, but on this day they crept out of their winter coats and came forth in summer dress. A tree could scarcely be found, in either forest or orchard, whose trunk was not entirely covered with them. Some had emerged from their pupal cases, others were emerging so they were half in and half out. Some had begun to try their wings. It was remarkable that on the previous day, that is the 21st of May, there were none… For seventeen years these insects had not been seen, now they appeared in fantastic quantities throughout the land…
...On the 25th day of May the insects were heard in the trees…They now made such a roar and din in the woods they could be heard for great distances. If two persons happened to meet they would have to shout in order to hear each other. If they were any distance apart it would be necessary to strain the voice to capacity in order to determine what was being said…
The handiwork of the Almighty Creator is easily recognized in the lives of these small creatures.
Kalm was clearly emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually moved by his meeting with Brood X.
A separate account of the 1749 emergence was also documented by Benjamin Banneker, a free African American and self-educated polymath. Banneker is well known for his Almanacs which detailed daily life on his farm as well as astronomical observations, and his correspondence with George Washington on slavery and racial equality. His observations on natural science are less familiar, but remain noteworthy.
The first great Locust year that I can Remember was 1749. I was then about Seventeen years of age when thousands of them came and was creeping up the trees and bushes... Again in the year 1766, which is Seventeen years after the first appearance, they made a Second, and appeared to me to be full as numerous as the first… Again in the year 1783 which was Seventeen years since their second appearance to me, they made their third; and they may be expected again in the year 1800,which is Seventeen years since their third appearance to me. So that if I may venture So to express it, their periodical return is Seventeen years, but they, like the Comets, make but a short stay with us…
Written in 1800, these observations make Banneker “among the first American scientists to document and record chronological information of the seventeen-year cycle of the periodic Magiciada – Brood X".
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the unusual life cycle of the Magicicada also catches the literary imagination and they make periodic appearances in biography, poetry, prose, and graphic novels. Across these works, two themes particularly stand out. The first is aural – the din, hum, buzz, drone, whirr, roar, squall – these little creatures cannot be ignored, particularly when in full throes of their communal love song. The second theme speaks of loss, re-emergence, and transformation.
Perhaps the most striking literary homage to the cicadas’ song is a poem in Paul Fleischman’s Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices. Magically illustrated by Eric Beddow, this collection designed for children celebrates insect life in all its joyous forms.
Each poem is intended to be read aloud simultaneously by two people. This has the effect of partially recreating the sound of the insects buzz, and eventual pairing-off. The dual voice also acts as an affirmation of the childhood experience of encountering and describing a newly discovered insect: the curiosity, wonder, and perplexity they inspire is best when shared (much like books being read aloud by parent to child).
Mộng-Lan’s Song of the Cicadas also foregrounds sound. In contrast to Fleischman, she uses cicadas as a motif for exploring a coupling between two people. It should be noted that Mộng-Lan is Vietnamese and she moved to America with her family following the evacuation of Saigon in 1975, and has subsequently lived in Japan, Thailand, and Argentina. These experiences are alluded to through references to foreign lands, encounters in airports after long journeys, seasonal transformations, and the unpredictability of ‘fate’. She thus weaves through the poem allusions to the brooding and mating habits of periodical cicadas in order to evoke how this particular encounter resonated with the emotional experience of being an immigrant. This experience is signaled as transformative through its use of the visual imagery of an imago cicada emerging from its nymph exoskeleton at the molting phase:
skins subtle as persimmons
where the skin breaks at the fullest
Another work that also makes use of cicadas in reference to the immigrant experience is Canadian author Elfreida Read’s A Time of Cicadas. This is the first in a series of memoirs about her childhood in Shanghai, her internment during the war, and her family’s subsequent emigration to Canada (Vancouver). It opens with a description of Shanghai, “my city, my Camelot”. A city, she says, that “was lost in time… you will never be able to go there yourself, any more than you can step at will into the substance and memories of those who lived there for that short enchanted time.” She then skillfully brings to life on the page a vision of summer in pre-war Shanghai accompanied by the soundtrack of “cicadas sawing in the treetops”. Here, the sounds of the cicadas evokes a nostalgia for a youth and a city lost to war and emigration.
Just as we’ve been waiting for the cicadas to emerge, readers spent five years eagerly anticipating the arrival of this children’s book from Australian author/illustrator, Shaun Tan. Cicada, follows a green insect office clerk (the eponymous Cicada); a lone splash of colour trapped deep in the grey drudgery of an office job.
Underappreciated and mistreated, the cicada works harder and longer than the others, yet has less rights and lower pay than his human colleagues. Tan acknowledges the parallels here with the retirement of his architect father, a frustrated Chinese immigrant from Malaysia who felt undervalued by his Australian colleagues. Upon Cicada’s unremarked retirement after 17 years (the life cycle of a cicada), we follow as he winds his way up the stairs of the office block, finally emerging on to the roof. His drab outer shell of suit and tie is shed to reveal a luminous winged body which takes flight; joining thousands of others in the lush, bright forest for a brief, but explosive finale.
- Written by Francisca Fuentes Rettig and Lucy Rowland
01 October 2020
The Americas and Oceania collections are pleased to offer three new electronic resources on women's rights, Native American studies, and early settlers in Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand. The resources can be accessed by Readers in the British Library Reading Rooms which are currently open but in a restricted capacity. Our hard-working Reference Enquiry Team are also able to access these new resources in order to support your virtual enquiries. You can contact them on their Quick Chat service for short research enquiries from Monday to Friday: 09.30–17.00, or get in touch with individual Reading Room teams via the 'Ask the Reference Team' function.
This digital collection is comprised of records of three important women's rights organizations in the US: the National Woman's Party, the League of Women Voters, and the Women's Action Alliance. Material included shows the organisations’ concerns with issues such as employment and employment discrimination, childcare, health care, and education and U.S. politics from 1920 to 1974. Types of content include party papers, correspondence, minutes, legal papers, financial records, printed material and photos. It’s an absolutely fascinating range of documents; lots of correspondence letters, offering a very different kind of approach to historical research on the topic of women’s rights
The collection provides a good primary resource for the study of first and second wave feminism. It includes the records of three important women's rights organizations in the US for the period 1913-1996, with additional material dating back to the 1850s. This resource complements existing areas of the British Library’s collections, particularly in regard to printed material around women’s suffrage movements in America. Later this month, the Library will be highlighting its collection around women’s rights with its major exhibition, Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights, taking place, and this resource will provide researchers with further ways to investigate the stories and issues touched upon in the exhibition.
Related e-resources which can be accessed in the Reading Rooms and by our Reference Enquiry Team to support virtual enquiries during this time include:
For researchers looking at Indigenous Studies, American Studies and Canadian Studies, North American Indian Thought and Culture brings together more than 100,000 pages, many of which are previously unpublished, rare, or hard to find. The project integrates autobiographies, biographies, First Nations publications, oral histories, personal writings, photographs, drawings, and audio files for the first time. The result is a comprehensive representation of historical events as told by the individuals who lived through them. The database is an important resource for all those interested in research into the history of Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and Canadian First Peoples. It includes an archive of key texts about and by Indigenous peoples, including biographies, oral histories (audio and transcript), and photographs.
This resource complements existing collection strengths on North American Indigenous peoples at the British Library. Covering several centuries, its value particularly lies in the numerous accounts by Indigenous people (written and oral) which add a much needed dimension to the collections. Many of the materials it provides access to are otherwise unavailable in the UK. Autobiographies by Black Hawk and Okah Tubbee can be accessed, and rare books included represent Sequoyah and Standing Bear. Twenty prominent Native Americans have been selected for special emphasis, with multiple biographies presented, including Tecumseh, Sitting Bull, Chief Joseph, and Plenty Coups.
Virtually all North American groups are represented—nearly 500 in all. Some nations are covered in great depth, including the Eskimos and Inuit of the Arctic; the sub-Arctic Cree; the Pacific Coastal Salish; the Ojibwa, Cheyenne, and Sioux of the Plains. Biographies have been collected from more than 100 Native American publications, such as The Arrow, the Cherokee Phoenix, and the Chickasaw Intelligencer. The collection includes 2,000 oral histories presented in audio and transcript form and at least 20,000 photographs including from the archives of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and other rare collections.
Related e-resources which can be accessed in the Reading Rooms and by our Reference Enquiry Team to support virtual enquiries during this time include:
For researchers in settler colonial studies, history, area studies, migration studies, Indigenous studies, and more, this collection of first-person accounts provide a unique and personal view of events in Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand from the arrival of the first settlers through to Australian Federation at the close of the nineteenth century. Through letters and diaries, narratives, and other primary source materials, we are able to hear the voices of the time and explore the experiences of women and men, settlers and Indigenous peoples, convicts, explorers, soldiers, and officials . Thousands of unique documents have been drawn from the archives of the State Library of Victoria; State Library of New South Wales; State Library of Queensland; Flinders University; University of Melbourne; and University of Waikato.
A key feature of this resource is the extensive indexing of material which allows the sources to be browsed and cross-searched in a variety of ways, including by date, person, and subject. Content can be explored by writer, region, audience, personal and historical event, environmental features including fauna and flora, and more. Supporting material such as images, maps, and photographs supplement the first-person narratives and provide additional context. The resource builds on the legacy of the James Cook: The Voyages exhibition in providing first-hand accounts of those who settled in Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific following Cook’s exploration in the region.
Related e-resources which can be accessed in the Reading Rooms and by our Reference Enquiry Team to support virtual enquiries during this time include:
Lucy Rowland, Curator of Oceania Published Collections
14 May 2020
Changing the perspective on James Cook’s arrival in Australia: online resources offering a view from the shore
At the end of April, 250 years ago, the Gweagal people, in Kurnell (Kamay Botany Bay, New South Wales) encountered strangers approaching their shore. The written versions of this initial contact in journals and letters have since been studied and commemorated in Western culture. Extensive celebrations of the bicentenary in 1970 were televised worldwide and included a lengthy royal tour, pageants, and multiple re-enactments of Cook's arrival. Yet, now in 2020, James Cook's legacy in Australia is often the subject of controversial debate with commemoration events considerably more subdued than those 50 years ago. Re-examination of the original journals, letters and documents from the voyages by scholars since the 1970s has offered glimpses of a different narrative, and we are now beginning to hear other views of the events in 1770 and subsequent encounters: those recorded through story, song and dance and passed down through descendants of the Gweagal people and other communities who witnessed Cook's voyage up the east coast of Australia.
With many of the public events marking the 250th anniversary suspended due to the current global pandemic (see Maria Nugent's perspective on the thwarted anniversary plans in her article, Virtually Captain Cook), we can look to the wealth of online exhibitions and digital resources that have been made available to explore First People’s accounts of Cook’s arrival in Australia. One such exhibition is the National Museum of Australia’s Endeavour Voyage: The Untold Stories of Cook and the First Australians which will be releasing new digital content to follow the voyage up Australia’s east coast until August 2020. This exhibition looks at the missing voices from the Endeavour story and content includes The Message: The Story from the Shore, a film made in collaboration with Indigenous communities which re-imagines how the news of the arrival of strangers was passed along groups on the east coast.
The Australian National Maritime Museum's Encounters 2020 program includes resources designed to bring to life perspectives from the shore as well as those from the ship. Material here includes an animated short film, The Strange Big Canoe, which combines journal records and Indigenous histories to depict HMB Endeavour’s voyage along the east coast, and the film, East Coast Encounter: Re-imagining 1770, which tells the story of the East Coast Encounter project, where a group of artists re-visit key places where Cook landed on Australia's East Coast. The Australian Government's Shared Histories site, part of their Endeavour 250 anniversary program, draws on items from these national collections to reflect on the events of 1770, and the lasting impact of the voyages on Indigenous Australians.
In the UK, the Portico Museum in Manchester, have launched the online exhibition What it is to be here: Colonisation and Resistance which is running until July 2020. The exhibits here trace the First Peoples of Australia’s resistance to colonisation in seven stages, from the first encounters in ‘The view from the shore’ up to the present day in ‘What it is to be here 2020’. This exhibition builds on the connections which have developed between Manchester, AIATSIS and the First Nations people of Australia. This relationship also saw the return of 43 secret sacred and ceremonial objects to the Aranda people of Central Australia, Gangalidda Garawa peoples’ of northwest Queensland, Nyamal people of the Pilbara and Yawuru people of Broome in 2019.
Online material is also available through previous exhibitions on the voyages, including Dr Shayne T. Williams’ article An Indigenous Australian perspective on Cook's arrival and Responses from across the Pacific from the the British Library's James Cook: The Voyages exhibition in 2018. The National Library of Australia held the exhibition Cook and the Pacific from 22 September 2018 to 10 February 2019 and material is still available online, including a useful overview of the exhibition. Resources from this exhibition include First Nation Voices, where contemporary responses to objects from the exhibition were provided by First Nation peoples from the communities visited by Cook on his voyages in the Pacific, and John Maynard's essay, “I’m Captain Cooked”: Aboriginal Perspectives on James Cook, 1770–2020. See also the blog post written during the exhibition which explores the relationships First Nation peoples have now with the Indigenous word-lists that were compiled during the voyages. The National Library of Australia have also created a collection of webpages on the 250th anniversary, captured for posterity through their web archive, which includes many of the sites mentioned in this post.
Further digital resources which offer Indigenous perspectives on the 250th anniversary include articles from a variety of media sources. National Indigenous Television (NITV) features a piece from a Wuthathi man who considers why the anniversary can be seen as reason for celebration, award-winning journalist, Paul Daley, reflects on the Cook legacy in his essay On Cook in the literary journal, Meanjin, and ABC News looks at the first sighting of the Endeavour as remembered by the Yuin people of south-eastern Australia as part of their Walking Together series. The Conversation, an online source of viewpoints from the research community, has released a series of articles from Australian and UK academics which reflect on the impact of Cook’s arrival in the Pacific 250 years ago. The articles, 19 at the time of writing, cover a variety of topics from teaching Cook in the classroom to the impact of the voyages on Indigenous women. Maria Nugent, Co-Director, Australian Centre for Indigenous History, Australian National University, considers the Aboriginal Australian viewpoints on Cook collected during the bicentenary in 1970 which continue to shape the way we understand Cook today, while Bruce Buchan (Griffith University) and Eddie Synot (Indigenous Law Centre, University of NSW) explore how First Nations people are using art to challenge and confront Cook's legacies in Australia.
These 'views from the shore' are vital in helping to build a shared and balanced narrative of the encounters in 1770, and allow a deeper understanding of Australia's history: a perspective that, 250 years later, is reflected in the ethos of the official anniversary activities in 2020:
It is an opportunity for Australians of all backgrounds to listen to and learn from each other’s stories, to understand what took place, and to discuss what it means for our future. It is a chance to reflect on our histories and to connect our cultures. (Australian Government, 2020)
Lucy Rowland, Curator of Oceania Published Collections post-1850
References and further reading:
Australian Government (2020) 250th anniversary of Captain Cook's voyage to Australia [online] Available at: https://www.arts.gov.au/what-we-do/cultural-heritage/250th-anniversary-captain-cooks-voyage-australia
Hokari, M. (2011). Gurindji journey : A Japanese historian in the outback. Kensington, N.S.W.: University of New South Wales Press. BL shelfmark YD.2011.a.4474
Konishi, S., Nugent, M, & Shellam, T. (2015). Indigenous intermediaries : New perspectives on exploration archives. Acton, A.C.T. : Australian National University Press. BL shelfmark YD.2017.b.161
Pascoe, B. (2018). Dark emu : Aboriginal Australia and the birth of agriculture. Melbourne : Scribe. BL shelfmark YK.2019.a.662
Rose, D.B. (1991). Hidden histories. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies. BL shelfmark YA.1994.b.5340
24 April 2020
Welcome to part 2 of our blog on poetry in endangered and lesser-known languages in collaboration with our European Studies colleagues. In part 1 of this blog, we considered examples of poetry in Tongan and Yucatec Maya, and here in part 2 we look at examples in Patwa/Jamaican Creole and Yolngu Matha. If you've never heard of these languages, read on!
Bun an Cheese by Louise Bennett-Coverley
Dem Bwoy dah jeer Miss Matty,
An a mock her an tease,
Dem a kill demself wid laugh mah
An a call her Bun an Cheese
Dem sey from Good Friday mawnin
Her jawbone no get ease
Mawnin noon an night bedtime
She was nyamin Bun and Cheese
Fe breakfuss lunch an dinna
She got so-so bun and cheese
She kea it go a church an
Movin pictures if you please
She no count saltfish an ackee
Cut her y’eye pon rice an peas
Hear her “me put pot pon fire
When me got me Bun and Cheese!”
Easter time gwine come an go weh
Days an moment fly like breeze
But as long as Matty live dem bwoy
Gwine call her Bun and Cheese!
Those boys jeer Miss Matty
And Mock and tease her
They are killing themselves with laugh
And call her Bun and Cheese
They say from Good Friday morning
Her jawbone got no ease
Morning noon and nighttime
She was eating Bun and Cheese
For Breakfast lunch and dinner
She got only bun and cheese
She took it to church and
Moving pictures if you please
She does not count saltfish and ackee
Cut her eye on rice and peas
Hear her “I put my pot on the fire
When I got my Bun and Cheese!”
Easter time come and go away
Days and moment fly like breeze
But as long as Matty live those boys
Going to call her Bun and Cheese!
Coming off the heels of Easter, this is one of my favourite Louise Bennett-Coverley poems. “Miss Lou” as she was affectionately called is one of the most loved and highly respected Jamaican poets. She uses the themes of food culture and local traditions in this timeless work. These themes highlight the love affair the protagonist “Miss Matty” has with the popular Jamaican Easter treat “bun and cheese”, closely associated with the popular English “hot cross buns”. The use of the Jamaican dialect, Patois (Patwa) by Miss Lou makes this poem even more expressive and exciting. Regardless of the time of day, place and alternative food options Miss Matty is only interested in her tasty treat. This poem encapsulates the happy atmosphere that surrounds one of Jamaica’s most delightful Easter traditions.
Chantelle Richardson (Chevening Fellow at the British Library and Special Collections Librarian at the National Library of Jamaica)
Yolngu Matha (Australia)
*Please note: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that these pages may contain images, voices or names of deceased persons in photographs, film, audio recordings or printed material.*
When a list of 200 Aboriginal Australian words was recorded in the north of Australia during James Cook’s voyage in 1770, it was assumed that these words would be spoken by all the Indigenous people in the country. One of the words on this list was ‘kangaroo’ (kanguru or gangurru), which was provided by the Guugu Yimidhirr people in what is now known as Far North Queensland. Yet, when European settlers arrived in 1788, in what would become Sydney, and tried to make use of the list, the word 'kangaroo’ was met with confusion by the local Aboriginal people who believed this to be an English word. Only later did the Europeans realise that the First people of Australia spoke more than 250 different languages, including 800 dialectal varieties, at the time of European settlement. For a visual representation of this language distribution, see the AIATSIS map of Indigenous Australia which attempts to represent all the language, tribal or nation groups of the First peoples of Australia. Of the 160 varieties still spoken, only 13 are spoken by children and 90% of Indigenous Australian languages are in danger of dying out.
One of the 13 languages still spoken by children, and in somewhat less danger, is the language group known as Yolngu Matha (or Yolŋu Matha). Yolngu Matha, has around 2,000 speakers and is a member of the Pama-Nyungan family of languages. It is spoken by the Yolngu people in the north-eastern part of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory of Australia. There are a dozen dialects of Yolngu Matha, each with its own name and with significant variation between them, though there is some mutual understanding between the dialects. During the 1930s, missionaries developed various ways of writing Yolngu Matha, which are still used today, though there is no standard spelling system. This linguistic complexity of variant spellings, and clan and dialect distinctions in Yolngu Matha (as with all the Indigenous Australian languages), has now been mapped to a great extent in the AUSTLANG database. This landmark project by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) provides the means for institutions to begin the process of attributing the correct language to bibliographic records, as is being done through crowd sourcing at the National Library of Australia.
When we look at the British Library records for poetry by Indigenous Australians, although we can find recent examples written in English (see Ellen van Neerven, Alison Whittaker, or Lionel Fogarty), those written in Indigenous Australian languages are far scarcer (although a welcome example is Nganajungu yagu by Charmaine Papertalk-Green which mixes Wajarri, Badimaya, and English - shelfmark YD.2019.a.5930). And while we can attribute this partly to historical collection practices which favoured non-Indigenous languages (and similar discrimination in the publishing industry), this is also due to the history in Indigenous cultures of spoken word over written language.
A particularly rich poetic oral tradition in Indigenous Australian culture can be seen in songlines. Also known song spirals or song cycles, these living archives of cultural knowledge and wisdom are preserved and passed on through song. Using cues from the land, sky and sea to navigate through space and time, songlines are handed down through generations. A member of the community acts as the custodian of the songline and these are rarely shared with outsiders. For this blog, I have chosen to highlight a 2019 Yolngu Matha collection, Songspirals: Sharing women's wisdom of Country through songlines by the Gay'wu Group of Women (Allen and Unwin 2019 - awaiting cataloguing at the British Library). Here women’s roles in songlines are explored and the authors share five song spirals in Gumatj, a dialect of Dhuwal (also Dual, Duala), one of the Yolngu Matha languages.
Below is an excerpt from Wuymirri, the Whale
Nguruku miyamanarawu Dhangaḻa aaaaaaaa...
Waṉa nyerrpu miyaman ngunha marrtji Bangupanngu.
Miyaman marrtji Balwarri Nepaway, Maywuṉdjiwuy.
Bawaywuyngu miyamara Dhuḻuḻwuynguru;
Bawaywuyngu miyamara Rrawuḻuḻwuynguru;
Nguruku miyaman ngarra marrtji Rrawuḻuḻwuynguru.
Of that body of water I sing, I sing of the body of water.
The arm of the paddler is knowledgeable, over there is Bangupanngu.
I am singing about Balwarri, the whale, Nepaway, the open sea.
Of the place between sunrise and sunset I sing,
Where the whales swim with open mouths, scooping water,
A pod of whales, flipping and jumping, playing and roaming;
A gathering of many people;
For that I sing Rrawuḻuḻ, the place where the whales
I sing for those people, the ones far away.
In Indigenous Australian culture, languages with few or no speakers are described as ‘sleeping’, and there are some welcome initiatives to re-awaken these sleeping languages. These include the formation of the AIATSIS foundation to record languages and songlines and publish 15 dictionaries of languages a year over the next decade. An exciting effort to re-awaken language through poetry has been developed through the Poetry in First Languages project, devised by Gunai poet, Kirli Saunders. In this program, Indigenous poets, Elders and Language Custodians work directly with Indigenous students to write poetry in their cultural language.
To hear Yolngu Matha in a musical context, take a listen to the award-winning Yolngu rapper Baker Boy who seamlessly mixes this language with English in his performances such as 'Marryuna' (Let's Dance) below.
Lucy Rowland, Curator of Oceania Published Collections post-1850
Chris McCabe (ed.), Poems from the Edge of Extinction (London, 2019), [BL shelfmark: ELD.DS.463137]
Read more about the Endangered Poetry Project
Morris, M. (2014). Miss Lou : Louise Bennett and Jamaican Culture. BL shelfmark YKL.2014.a.5466
Bennett, L., & Morris, M. (2003). Auntie Roachy seh. Kingston: Sangster's Book Stores. BL shelfmark YD.2005.a.1825
Bennett, L (1983) Selected Poems. Kingston, Jm. : Sangster's Book Stores. BL shelfmark X.958/29332
Bennett, L (1949) Jamaican dialect poems. Kingston , Jm : printed by the Gleaner Co. BL shelfmark X.909/29896
Dyungayan, G., & Cooke, S. (2014). George Dyungayan's Bulu Line : A West Kimberley song cycle. Glebe, NSW: Puncher & Wattmann. BL shelfmark YD.2017.a.916
Gay'wu Group of Women (2019). Songspirals: Sharing women's wisdom of Country through songlines. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin. (awaiting shelfmark)
Papertalk-Green, C. (2019). Nganajungu yagu. Victoria, Australia : Cordite Books. BL shelfmark YD.2019.a.5930
22 November 2019
Over the past few years the month of November has become synonymous with the moustache all in the name of Movember – the leading global organisation committed to changing the face of men's health. So we thought it was only right to pay homage to some of our favourite bros with enviously good mos…
As sharp as the unnamed narrator in his 1952 landmark novel, Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison's well-groomed moustache demands attention and admiration. Before embarking on a writing career, Ellison was a trumpet player and music student at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama; the all-black university found by Booker T. Washington which would become the model for the college in Invisible Man. Much attention has been paid to the links between Ellison's writing and the composition techniques used in jazz, particularly his use of solos, improvisation and movement as literary devices in Invisible Man. His pencil-thin moustache worked equally well with both of his talents; writer and jazz aficionado.
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (New York : New American Library of World Literature, 1964). Shelfmark X.907/2412.
Fascinating rhythm : reading jazz in American writing by David Yaffe (Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, 2006). Shelfmark YC.2006.a.7114
Perfectly befitting the innovative creator of hard-boiled detective fiction, Dashiell Hammett’s personal style was striking and urbane: a neat, black moustache brilliantly contrasting with a shock of white hair. Surprisingly, given the impact of his fiction, Hammett’s fiction-writing career lasted only twelve years. His first story appeared in The Smart Set magazine in November 1922. With The Maltese Falcon (1930), he became a literary sensation. But by 1934 he had essentially retired from writing.
Edgar Allan Poe(vember)
With hair as black as a raven, no one wears the lampshade moustache quite like Edgar Allan Poe. The images of Poe that I’ve seen have always seemed so melancholy and, given the nature of his tales, I assumed his character to be so too. So I was surprised to find in a short article by Mrs. Susan A. T. Weiss, in Scribner's Monthly from 1878, a description of Poe that quite counters this idea: ‘… he appeared … invariably cheerful, and frequently playful in mood … quietly amused … with a playful sarcasm.’ (p 709)
As well as his disposition, Mrs Weiss offers quite the description of Poe’s trademark facial hair: ‘He wore a dark mustache, scrupulously kept, but not entirely concealing a slightly contracted expression of the mouth, and an occasional twitching of the upper lip, resembling a sneer … There was in it nothing of ill-nature, but much of sarcasm…’ (p 711).
Aubrey Beardsley’s trademark style captures Poe’s features in all their glory in this portrait printed in with a collection of illustrations in 1926 (7852.t.19.). The Library holds plenty of items by this moustached maverick including a first edition of Tamerlane (C.34.b.60.), which Poe authored under simply ‘a Bostonian’, rather than his real name.
The Smart Set: A magazine of cleverness (New York: 1900–25) shelfmark: P.P.6383.ah.
The Dashiell Hammett Omnibus: The Thin Man, The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key, The Dain Case, Red Harvest & four short stories by Dashiell Hammett (London: Cassell & Co, 1950) shelfmark: 12646.h.17.
Illustrations to Edgar Allen Poe by Aubrey Beardsley (Indianapolis: Aubrey Beardsley Club, 1926) shelfmark: 7852.t.19.
Tamerlane, and other poems by a Bostonian (Boston: C. F. S. Thomas, 1827) shelfmark: C.34.b.60.
The musician and author sported an enviable moustache for the better part of a decade until, in the fog of jet lag following a long haul flight, his wife convinced him to shave it off. His moustache veered between a polished handlebar and a pure '70s sleaze 'tache during the Grinderman era; his obvious delight in the aesthetics of facial hair placed him well to judge the World Beard and Moustache Championships, held in Brighton in 2007.
17 October 2019
October is Black History Month in the UK and has been celebrated here for nearly 40 years. The month marks an annual commemoration of the history, achievements and contributions of black people in the UK. Originally founded to recognise the contributions made by people of Caribbean and African backgrounds, the focus of Black History Month has now expanded to include the history of African, Asian and Caribbean peoples and the importance of their contributions to the culture of the UK.
To mark Black History Month, we have selected a few items from our collections which highlight significant moments in black history around the world. The British Library will also be hosting Caribbean Fest events on Saturday October 19th 2019 including poetry, food and performance.
Ottavia Salvador, Fabrizio Denunzio, Morti senza sepoltura. Tra processi migratori e narrativa neocloniale (Ombre corte, 2019) YF.2019.a.14806
Migrations in the Mediterranean are the subject of a lot of Italian books at the moment. I chose this title because the authors don't shy away from holding neo-colonialism responsible for the immigration process. The title 'Dead without Burial' evokes the horror of dying in a foreign country, in exile, often without a grave with a name on. Like French sociologist Abdelmalek Sayad (more from him, also in English in our collections) says in the essay in the appendix, the way a country treats a foreigner who dies on its soil says a lot.
John Michael Vlach, Back of the Big House: The Architecture of Plantation Slavery (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1993). q93/15775
Chosen by Cara, Deputy Head, Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library
This book made a deep impression on me when I first came across it as part of an MA course on the built environment in America. I was impressed by how thoroughly Vlach managed to bring the lived experiences of the enslaved into sharp focus through the architectural landscapes they had inhabited. As he says himself in his Preface his “main objectives here are first to describe, in broad terms, the architectural settings of plantation slavery and then to suggest some of the ways in which black people may have transformed those architectural settings into places that best served their social needs” (p.x). The major source for the visual material in the book is the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS). Originally founded in 1933, it still operates as a division of the National Parks Service. During the 1930s and later, HABS teams documented large numbers of slave buildings and associated spaces and Vlach uses these photographs and plans to great effect in his book. These are then complemented by another Depression-era source, the oral histories of formerly enslaved people conducted by interviewers for the Federal Writer’s Project. As Vlach explains “My description of the architecture of slavery thus meshes information from two archival projects that have been separated for more than half a century” (p.xiii). I found this mixture of first-person accounts, as well as other archival evidence (business records, personal letters etc), with the structures that had shaped people’s everyday lives to be incredibly evocative. I came away from the book with a deeper understanding of the importance of vernacular spaces to historical enquiry, as well as more especially a better understanding of the way the built environment shaped, and was shaped by, the lives of enslaved African-Americans and their white overseers and owners. I’ve found myself thinking about this book often over the years, especially as discussions around how to more fully represent the experiences of enslaved people have come to the forefront in heritage and tourism contexts (for example, the incorporation of slave buildings and stories into the interpretation offered to visitors at plantation sites in the US, most notably at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello home).
For more information on Federal Writer’s Project holdings at the British Library, including the accounts of former slaves, see the guide prepared by my Eccles Centre colleague, Jean Petrovic.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker (Boston, Mass: G.K. Hall, 1986), Nov.1987/702
I was introduced to the The Color Purple while in my first year as an undergraduate at the University of Nottingham. It was like nothing I’d read before, in both voice and content. I’d never encountered a character like Cecile, nor the abuse she endures in a novel, and I remember being interested in the contrasting ways the various females in the book are portrayed. Told in an epistolary format as Cecile writes to God, she tells of the horrors she suffers at the hands of her father and later her husband, and the life that eventually leads her to Shug – a woman who opens her eyes to a different way of living. The Color Purple won the Pulitzer Prize in 1983 and frequently features on lists of banned or contested books (see more of these on our Banned Books Week blog).
Land Rights Before Games poster (Brisbane, Australia: 1982) shelfmark HS.74/2436
This poster represents a key piece of 20th century campaign material in Australian history. The 1982 Commonwealth Games in Brisbane were the focus of a series of protests from Indigenous Australians who aimed to bring the issue of land rights to the international stage. The campaign called for rights over indigenous lands in Queensland and control over mining in those areas. The Queensland premier at the time, Joh Bjelke-Peterson, declared a state of emergency and banned street marches during the games. Yet around 2000 people still took to the streets of Brisbane on 26th September in support of the campaign and in protest of the continuing oppression of Indigenous Australians. Further sit-ins and marches were held throughout the games with hundreds of arrests made by police. The protests gained international attention and remain a significant moment in the indigenous civil rights movement in Australia. In 2012, the State Library of Queensland held an exhibition called 'State of Emergency' to mark the 30th anniversary of the protests.
09 August 2019
It turns out there really is a celebratory day for everything (yes, we’re still enjoying yesterday’s International Cat Day moment), and 9 August is no exception. Happy Book Lovers Day!
To pay homage, Team Americas, Australasia and Eccles has picked a few much-loved books to share. Some have played an admirable role in guiding us on the various paths that have led us to the mothership that is the British Library, while others have been part of the discoveries made journeying through, and adding to, the vast and varied collections held here. Of course some heads starting to smoke at the thought of picking just one favourite book each, so this is a carefully selected array of those we love from our individual, rather long (and always growing) lists.
We’re confident that there will be another book-related annual festivity just beckoning for a blog in the not-too-distant future – look out for it as we shoehorn in the ‘ones that got away’ from today’s offering.
Book: Populuxe by Thomas Hine
British Library holding: Populuxe by Thomas Hine (London: Bloomsbury, 1987) YV.1988.b.2193
‘I came across Populuxe as an MA student and found it completely alluring. It has a beautiful pink binding and silvery blue lettering. Not many of the academic books I was reading at the time had such welcoming covers! The book is an examination of American material culture in the 1950s and ‘60s. As someone long fascinated by popular culture, its analysis was a revelation to me and helped me understand how everyday objects could be imbued with meaning. I had a literature, rather than a design or art history background, and Hine’s book helped me develop my critical thinking about material culture and the built environment. But also, it is just so much fun to read and I love poring over the fabulous illustrations.’
Book lover: Cara, Eccles Centre for American Studies
Book: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
British Library holding: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (Louisiana State Univ Press, 1980) 81/6110
‘There are few books which make me laugh out loud, fewer still that make me cry with laughter. A Confederacy of Dunces is one of these books. The main character, the irascible, gluttonous, and completely hilarious Ignatius J. Relly, is a wonderful creation, and following his picaresque search for truth, meaning, and the perfect hotdog is an unrivalled delight. There are all sorts of literary and philosophical allusions to unravel if you so wish, including references to the works of Boethius, Aquinas, François Rabelais and Jonathan Swift. If, however, you just want to sit back and enjoy the ride through the backstreets and dive bars of 1960s New Orleans, there is no better driver than Ignatius and his creator, John Kennedy Toole.’
Book lover: Philip, Eccles Centre for American Studies
Book: Elogio y paisaje by Nancy Morejón
British Library holding: Ciudad de La Habana: Ediciones Unión, c1996. (YA.2000.a.31155)
‘I like to read poetry in the summer holidays, especially after lunch when time goes slower and you can put the book down after each poem and leave the words floating in the air. This year I have loved Nancy Morejón’s Elogio y Paisaje, a book containing two poetry collections, Elogio de la danza (Ode to Dance) and Paisaje célebre (Famous Landscape). Morejón (Havana, 1944) is perhaps the most prominent voice of Cuban poetry today, as well as a translator and a scholar of the poetry of Nicolas Guillén. For English speakers, a bilingual edition of her poems, Looking Within: Selected Poems, 1954-2000 = Mirar adentro: poemas escogidos, 1954-2000 is available at YC.2003.a.20176.’
Book lover: Mercedes, American and Australasian Collections
Book: Restricted Images: Made with the Warlpiri of Central Australia by Patrick Waterhouse
British Library holding: London: SPBH Editions, 2018. (YC.2019.b.1013)
WARNING – Members of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are respectfully advised that a number of people mentioned in the text and depicted in the images of this publication have died.
‘This book has always stuck in my mind and is one that has since influenced my own practice as a curator. Over many trips to Warlpiri country in Central Australia, British artist, Patrick Waterhouse, photographed members of the Yeunduma and Nyirrpi Aboriginal communities, and then invited them to restrict and amend their own images using traditional dot painting. The project was an attempt to return the agency of their representation to the Warlpiri, whose images were used without consent and regard to their cultural beliefs in the 1899 book, The Native Tribes of Central Australia. The result is a compelling conversation about the power dynamics in photography, particularly in the colonial narratives which still dominate our library collections today.’
Book lover: Lucy, Australasian Published Collections
Book: New England’s Rarities Discovered by John Josselyn
British Library holding: London: For G. Widdowes, 1672. (435.a.5)
‘One of my favourite items is John Josselyn’s New England’s Rarities Discovered, which was published in London in 1672. Josselyn first visited New England in 1638 and, armed with the 1633 edition of John Gerard’s Herball, he spent a decade examining the “birds, beasts, fishes, serpents and plants of that country”. He was particularly interested in the plants used by the native population to “cure their distempers, wounds and sores”. Although its small size and rough and ready woodcuts give the impression of rather rustic work, Rarities was cited by Linneaus. Together with Josselyn’s second work, Account of Two Voyages to New England (1674), it remained the most complete summary of North American flora for more than a century.’
Book lover: Jean, Eccles Centre for American Studies
Book: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
British Library holding: Second edition, Boston: Ticknor, Reed & Fields, 1850. (12701.i.12)
‘I resisted the temptation of pointing to Edgar Allen Poe again and have chosen to shine a light on The Scarlet Letter. It was during my first semester as an undergraduate that I was introduced to this book. It opened my eyes to a whole new world of historical American fiction. Enraptured by the story of Hester, and how her experience grapples with the ‘romance’ the novel claims to be on its title page, my love of North American literature stems, in part, from this book. Some years later I read The Handmaid’s Tale and was struck by the similarities you can draw between the two – it’s probably no surprise that this is also a favourite on my bookshelf (but we can save that for another day). This second edition has the opening note from a previous owner: “You will be much pleased with Hawthorne.” And much pleased I was.’
Book lover: Rachael, N American Published Collections
23 May 2018
After reading Luke Pearson’s blog post on Indigenous X about Indigenous Australian characters in comic books, I decided to see what comics the British Library held that represented Indigenous Australasian characters. Instead of reiterating Pearson’s existing article, which I recommend reading, I have simply listed the comics I was able to find and their shelfmarks at the end of the post. The Condoman poster for a sexual health campaign is a great example of how comic characters can appeal to and educate children and teenagers. By making Condoman an Indigenous man there is a clear relatability for the Indigenous teens that this poster was aimed at.
It is clear that creating characters that readers or viewers can identify with is important; it provides a role model that one can recognise themselves in. Ryan Griffen, creator of the television show Cleverman – a program centred on Indigenous Australian characters and inspired by Indigenous culture, explained how he had created Cleverman so his son had Indigenous superheroes he could be as excited by as he was the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles:
‘I wanted to create an Aboriginal superhero that he could connect with, no matter what others said. I wanted a character that would empower him to stand and fight when presented with racism. Just like the old dreaming stories, Cleverman would be able to teach moral lessons; not only for my son, not just for Aboriginal people, but for many more out there as well.’
As Pearson points out, the majority of the Indigenous characters he lists were created by non-Indigenous people. I was interested in how some of these Indigenous characters were depicted so decided to focus on one of them, a DC character named Betty Clawman. She appears in the Millennium comic, the compilation of which is in the British Library collections.
Betty does not appear until week two of the series, where she is found squatting by ‘the aptly named Ayres Rock, near Alice Springs, Australia.’ The comic series was produced three years after custodianship of Uluru was returned to the Anangu traditional owners so it seems likely this event caught the international imagination and resulted in Indigenous Australians being associated with Uluru. Ayres Rock was the name that colonisers gave the rock, it was named after a South Australian Premier called Sir Henry Ayres, I am unsure how this makes it ‘aptly named’ and I assume it underlines how little research the comic writers had undertaken into Indigenous Australian history and culture. Betty has been selected as one of a group of people to become immortal guardians of earth, a fact she already knew before she was approached as she foresaw it in the ‘Dreamtime.’ While Betty seems to impress the existing Guardians, she is rather passive throughout the encounter and makes multiple references to dreaming and the land – ‘while I, rather than dreaming on the land, learn how to wake from its embrace!’ These vague references around dreamings and land could also be reference to a half-formed understanding of Indigenous culture through the debates surrounding the return of Uluru. It seems no coincidence, however, that this comic was produced in 1988, the same year Australia celebrated the Bicentennial of its ‘founding’. On 26th January 1988 (Australia Day) Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike took to the streets to protest the celebration of two-hundred years of history that tried to rewrite the 40,000 years of history Indigenous Australia had prior to British conquest. The protests sought to highlight ongoing denial of land rights along with the integral structural racism Indigenous Australians often experienced. It would be interesting to know how much of this political background Englehart, Staton and Gibson were aware of when they conceived Betty Clawman.
The other future Guardians set to join Betty suggests that the writers were keen to create an inclusive and diverse range of characters, yet they fell into the trap of easy cultural stereotypes (another future Guardian is Xiang Po, a Chinese woman who seizes the opportunity because ‘it never would have happened before the reforms). While I understand that the pages of comic books do not lend themselves to nuance and subtlety, it is a shame that the characters are so stereotyped. Betty’s willingness to follow the existing Guardians could at first be taken as passivity, but she often shows that she is confident and intelligent, such as questioning the teachings that the universe is logical. She is fore fronted in the cartoon frames and praised for her readiness to become a Guardian. I was very excited about the empowering depiction of Betty until the selected new Guardians transitioned into their new forms – the stereotyping became almost comical again: Xiang Po becomes incredibly sexy and her whole appearance is Westernised. Betty quite simply disappears! She becomes an invisible spirit that is simultaneously part of the earth and the other Guardians but no longer visible or audible; she informs others and perhaps shapes their actions but can no longer take actions herself.
This characterisation of the spiritual silent Indigenous person is reminiscent of Gateway, the Indigenous character Marvel created the same year the DC created Betty Clawman. Like Betty in her Guardian form, Gateway is silent and only communicates through telepathy. He simply sits and watches the actions of the X-Men, opening portals for them on request. From my close reading of these two comics and looking at the Indigenous characters on Pearson’s list, it does seem that if writers want a mysterious character that is imbued with spirituality, they make that character Indigenous. While there is perhaps nothing necessarily wrong with depicting an Indigenous person as deeply wise and spiritual, it becomes problematic when that is all they are shown as. It firmly places Indigenous Australians in a position of ‘other’, making it difficult for Indigenous people to identify with those characters, let alone other comic book fans.
Joanne Pilcher is currently carrying out a PhD placement project at the British Library, exploring contemporary publishing in Australia. If you would like to know more about placement opportunities at the Library for doctoral students please click here.
In my placement at the Library I have suggested the purchase of comic books that show a wide variety of Indigenous characters and complex personalities. If you have any other good suggestions do tweet me: @JoannePilcher1
Comic books/graphic novels in the British Library Collections that feature Indigenous Australian characters:
Grant Morrison et al, The Multiversity: the deluxe edition, New York: DC Comics, 2015, [shelfmark: General Reference Collection YKL.2017.b.559]
Hugh Dolan, Adrian Threlfall, Reg Saunders: An Indigenous War Hero, Sydney, NSW, Australia: NewSouth, 2015 [shelfmark: General Reference Collection YKL.2017.b.766]
Marvel Comics, Essential X-Men, Volume 8, New York, N.Y. : Marvel Publishing ; London : Diamond, distributor, 2007, [General Reference Collection YK.2009.b.171]
Steve Englehart, Joe Staton, Ian Gibson, Millennium: Trust No One, DC Comics, New York 2008. [shelfmark: General Reference Collection YK.2009.b.9556]
 Luke Pearson, ‘The Wombat to Kaptn Koori – Aboriginal Representation in Comic Books and Capes,’ Indigenous X, 13th June 2017, https://indigenousx.com.au/luke-pearson-the-wombat-to-kaptn-koori-aboriginal-representation-in-comic-books-and-capes/#.Wm8DF1hLHcs, [last accessed 29/01/18]
 Ryan Griffen, ‘We need more Aboriginal superheroes, so I created Cleverman for my son’, The Guardian, 27th may 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2016/may/27/i-created-cleverman-for-my-son-because-we-need-more-aboriginal-superheroes, [last accessed 29/01/18]
 Steve Englehart, Joe Staton, Ian Gibson, Millennium: Trust No One, DC Comics, New York 2008. Originally published as an eight part magazine series in 1988. [shelfmark: General Reference Collection YK.2009.b.9556]
 Millennium, DC Comics, p32
 ibid p33
 ibid p40
 Marvel Comics, Essential X-Men, Volume 8, New York, N.Y. : Marvel Publishing ; [London : Diamond, distributor], 2007, [General Reference Collection YK.2009.b.171]. Originally printed as serial magazines in 1988.
American Collections blog recent posts
- Reading Brood X
- New additions to our electronic resources
- Views from the shore
- Poems from the edge of extinction (part 2)
- Literary lip warmers for Movember
- Black History Month
- Book Lovers Day
- Indigenous Australian Comic Characters in the British Library
- Resources for engaging Māori contemporary culture and politics
- Resources for engaging with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander contemporary culture and politics.