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15 October 2018

‘A Triple Threat Woman’: The Letters of Sylvia Plath

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On Friday 14 December 1962, Sylvia Plath wrote to her mother: 'I can truly say I have never been so happy in my life'. Four days before she had moved to 23 Fitzroy Road in London, a former residence of Yeats, with her two young children Frieda Rebecca and Nicholas. 'I feel Yeats' spirit blessing me', she writes. After her separation from Ted Hughes, Plath had decided to leave their home in rural Devon and start a new life in London. All around she sees good omens: 'The first letter through the door was of my publishers'. Al Alvarez, poetry editor of the Observer, had told her that her next book of poems should win the Pulitzer. She gave him a dedicated fair copy of 'Ariel'.

But this is a letter to her mother, Aurelia Plath, and, like all letters, it is written with the addressee in mind. Reading the second volume of The Letters of Sylvia Plath, recently published by Faber, one is reminded of how collections of letters, more than other biographical genres such as diaries or memoirs, capture the different social selves of a writer. Plath is cheerful and enthusiastic in her letter to her mother, aiming to put Aurelia's mind at rest. Elsewhere in the collection, she is self-assured and witty in her letters to her professional contacts, written in short, sharp sentences. And then there is the correspondence with her psychiatrist Dr Beuscher, where Plath writes openly about her plans for the future, her anger and her fears.

Edited by Plath expert Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil, editor of The Journals of Sylvia Plath 1950–1962 and Keeper of Plath’s collection at Smith, the volume is meticulously annotated and contains a selection of photographs and Plath's own drawings. Among the letters there are several from the British Library’s collections of Plath’s manuscripts. The editors, together with Plath scholars Heather Clark and Mark Ford, will be discussing Plath's letters on 23 October at the British Library.

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Front cover of the Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume II (Faber, 2018)

 

The letters speak of Plath's efforts to progress her career as a poet while trying to earn enough money and care for her children, particularly in the months after her separation from Hughes. But her anxiety about the future of her career appears much earlier. In a letter written to Marcia B Stern dated 9 April 1957, months after her marriage, she writes: 'If I want to keep on being a triple-threat woman: writer, wife and teacher…I can’t be a drudge’. The correspondence also shows the extent to which Plath's and Hughes's literary careers were intertwined, and their mutual encouragement and support, celebrating each poem that gets published. The 1962 and 1963 letters are interesting to read for references to her works, including the autobiographical novel The Bell Jar, published under a pseudonym in 1963, and the extraordinary poems that appeared posthumously in the collection Ariel.

 

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Sylvia Plath [via Wikimedia Commons] 

The fact that the end of the story is well known doesn't make the last letter in the collection any easier to read. Addressed to her psychiatrist Ruth Beuscher on 4 February 1963, she writes: "What appalls me is the return of my madness, my paralysis, my fear & vision of the worst --cowardly withdrawal, a mental hospital, lobotomies". Blinded by depression, she continues "being 30 & having let myself slide, studied nothing for years, having mastered no body of objective knowledge is on me like a cold, accusing wind". Plath committed suicide days later, leaving behind the typescript of the poems that would become Ariel. Her Collected Poems won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1982.   

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   M.Aguirre

Lead Curator, Americas

 

17 August 2018

Canada and Its Literature: A Tale of More Than Two Cultures 2/2

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Language has inevitably played a significant role in Canada’s immigration patterns. Reflecting the country’s colonial history and occupation by both the French and the English, the two most commonly-spoken languages in Canada remain English (the mother tongue of 56% of Canadians) and French (that of 21% of Canadians). Of course, other factors influence human relocation, but it is easy to see the attraction of such a linguistic context for immigrants from former colonies. The Haitian-Canadian community is an especially good illustration. According to the 2011 Census, 97% of Haitian immigrants live in Quebec – the second most populous region of Canada, but more crucially, home to the largest French-speaking community in the country, and with French as the official language. The attraction is clear for people from Haiti, a former French colony that has retained French as the language of education and bureaucracy. And the Haitian community in Quebec has produced a significant amount of prominent migrant writers, such as Emile Ollivier, Marie-Célie Agnant, Gérard Etienne, Joël des Rosiers, Gary Klang and Anthony Phelps, many of whom are published by Mémoire d’encrier.

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Dany Laferrière. Wikimedia Commons. 2014.

 

But the best-known of them worldwide is Dany Laferrière, a political refugee of the Duvalier regime who has lived in North America since the 1970s. Born to a politician and an archivist, Laferrière worked as a journalist before fleeing Haiti soon after a colleague and friend of his was found murdered on a beach – most probably by the government. His autobiographical novel, Le Cri des Oiseaux Fous (2000) [The Cry of Mad Birds] narrates this event, its impact on him and the horrors of the Duvalier dictatorship in more detail. After moving to Montreal as a 23-year-old, he spent several years scraping a living from insecure jobs, living in cheap flats and reading novels. His first novel, provocatively entitled Comment faire l’amour à un nègre sans se fatiguer (1985) [How to Make Love to a Negro without Getting Tired] was a resounding international success. The story followed the lives of two Haitians sharing a flat in Montreal, and satirically engaged with racist stereotypes. A film adaptation followed four years after but was censured in the U.S, revealing the country’s continuing discomfort with racial issues. Over thirty years on, and with over thirty books to his name, Laferrière will be honoring the Institut Français of London with a visit on 24/09/2018 as part of the British Library’s French Caribbean Study Day.

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Kim Thúy at the Salon international du livre de Québec 2011. Wikimedia Commons.

 

Another important migrant writer from Quebec is Kim Thuy. Born in Vietnam, her family escaped the communist regime in her homeland when she was ten years old and she spent several months in a refugee camp in Malaysia before being relocated to Quebec where she had to learn French, the language in which she now writes. First working as a translator and later as a lawyer, Thuy never severed her links with her homeland. As a lawyer for example, she went on an advisory assignment to Vietnam with a group of Canadian experts. Back in Montreal, she also opened a Vietnamese restaurant called Ru de Nam. She then turned to writing and explored themes such as Vietnamese immigrant women, the culture shocks of immigration, the mother-daughter relationship and Vietnamese food. Her latest publication, Le Secret des Vietnamiennes (2017) [Vietnamese Women’s Secret] is actually a cookbook of Vietnamese recipes handed down from mothers to daughters. Her first novel, Ru (2009) was a bestseller in Quebec and France, won prestigious awards worldwide and was translated into over twenty-five languages. It tells the story of a family’s journey from Vietnam to Quebec and their difficult adaptation to Canada. Loosely based on her experiences, it tackles the Vietnamese “boat people” refugee crisis involving dangerous escapes from Vietnam on over-crowded boats to refugee camps. Significantly, more than 50% of the Southeast Asian boat people came to Canada as a result of a government program.

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A small selection of our holdings by French-language Canadian migrant writers (from left to right): Mona Latif-Ghattas (from Egypt), Abla Farhoud (from Lebanon), Hedi Bouraoui (from Tunisia), Ying Chen (from Shanghai), Naim Kattan (from Iraq), Régine Robin (from France), Sergio Kokis (from Bresil), Kim Thuy (from Vietnam), Blaise Ndala (from Congo), Marco Micone (from Italy), Dany Laferriere (from Haiti) and Aki Shimazaki (from Japan).

 

As you can see, Laferrière and Thuy are just two of the many French-language Canadian writers and the British Library holds books many more Canadian multicultural writers than I can even allude to in this post. Now let’s have a quick look at what we hold in terms of English-language migrant writing:

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A small selection of our holdings by English-language Canadian migrant writers (from left to right): Kim Fu (of Chinese descent), Esi Edugyan (of Ghanaian descent), Austin Clarke (from Barbadia), M.G Vassanji (from Kenya, of Asian descent), Shani Mootoo (from Trinidad), Michael Ondaatje (from Sri Lanka), Madeleine Thien (of Chinese descent), Shauna Singh Baldwin (of Indian descent), Dionne Brand (from Trinidad and Tobago), Olive Senior (from Jamaica) and Neil Bissoondath (from Trinidad).

 

Although technically speaking still a newcomer to the international literary scene, Lebanese-born writer and photographer Rawi Hage has been particularly in vogue since the publication of his first novel in 2006.  Hage witnessed the civil war in his homeland and moved to Canada in the early 1990s where he had to work as a security guard and taxi driver to pay his way through university. Hage wasn’t the only person to relocate because of the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990). In fact, as the war dragged on, Canada and Australia were the only Western countries to set up special programs to welcome Lebanese refugees. The 2011 census shows that Lebanese-Canadians still form the largest Arabic-speaking group in Canada. Language certainly had a role in this too, as 45% of Lebanese nationals can speak French. While Hage writes in English – his third language – up to quite recently he lived in Francophone Montreal, like about half of the Lebanese-Canadian population. His award-winning debut novel, De Niro’s Game (2006), tackles the hard choices that young Lebanese people faced during the civil war. His second novel, Cockroach (2008), charts the trials of an impoverished Middle Eastern immigrant in Montreal through his sessions with his therapist after a failed suicide attempt, leading the reader to question the success of Canada’s multiculturalism ambitions.

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Rawi Hage at Quebec Writers Federation, 2012. Vimeo.

 

Hage’s colleague writer and common-law partner Madeleine Thien has rightly argued that the Canadian literary prize-awarding establishment generally prioritizes white writers over nonwhite ones). And when “multicultural”/minority writers are included, they generally tend to be men. Evoking the prestigious Giller Prize, she remarks that only 12 nonwhite writers were shortlisted over a ten-year period, and that “this number includes twice each for Rawi Hage, M.G. Vassanji, and Michael Ondaatje”. Thien’s point is all the more significant considering the extent of nonwhite and multicultural women’s writing in Canada’s literary history. The Caribbean feminist and/or queer women writers Dionne Brand, M. Nourbese Philip, Olive Senior, Lorna Goodison, Shani Mootoo, Makeda Silvera and Nalo Hopkinson are only a few examples.

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Esi Edugyan. A portrait by Johann Wall, reproduced with his kind permission.

 

But in 2011, Esi Edugyan made history by being the first black woman to win the Giller Prize. Her novel, Half-Blood Blues, followed the lives of Afro-German and African-American jazz musicians fleeing the Gestapo in 1930s Berlin and Nazi-occupied Paris. Edugyan’s parents left Ghana in the 1970s, during a period of drastic change and political unrest following independence. Like many of their compatriots, they moved to Canada, where Ghanaians became the second-largest African immigrant group. Her family’s first-hand experiences of racism and difficulties adapting to life in Canada has inspired much of her writing. Her first novel for example, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne (2004), shows the disillusionment of a Ghanaian immigrant living in Alberta in the late 20th century, a character loosely based on her father. In the past few weeks, Edugyan has made the news again, by being long-listed (for the second time!) alongside Ondaatje for the Man Booker Prize. Her competing novel, Washington Black (2018), is an unconventional slave narrative which charts the life of a twelve-year-old slave working in a Barbados sugar plantation before fleeing an unjust execution in the 1830s, travelling to America, Canada, England, the Netherlands and Morocco. Good luck to her!

Laura Gallon.


Laura Gallon is a PhD placement student at the British Library where she is working on a project assessing holdings of migrant narratives in the North American collections. She is in the second year of her PhD at the University of Sussex which is looking at contemporary American short fiction by immigrant women writers. Her placement is supported by the Eccles Centre for American Studies.


27 July 2018

Reporting from the reading rooms: Brazilian writers and translation

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3 weeks into my stint as Translator in Residence at the British Library, I’ve finally made it into one of the reading rooms and actually looked at some books, which I’ll admit is a rather unorthodox thing to do in a library. While the desks of my companions in the European collections department, where I’m based for the year, tend to be overloaded with books from the collections, administrative issues left me temporarily unable to do this, and so I was forced to join the masses and access my materials the way the vast majority of BL visitors do, in one of the many reading rooms. Besides, I am meant to be resident here, so it would be remiss of me not to actually visit one. Thus I found myself, on a hot Wednesday afternoon, collecting my reservations from Asian and African Studies  (not quite the nearest to my desk, but more exciting-sounding than ‘Science 3’)  and sitting down with other members of the public to get stuck in.

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In the weeks prior to this, I’d been randomly typing names into the catalogue whenever they sprang to mind, and I was excited to finally have a look at some of these books in the flesh. I started by looking at books by or about two 20th Century Brazilian  authors I’m currently reading, before going back in time to the early days of modern Brazil.

The first book I looked at was Cartas de viagem e outras cronicas (Travel letters and other chronicles), the collected non-fiction of Walter Campos de Carvalho, who occupies a strange role in Brazilian letters. As yet untranslated into English (I’m trying to change that, publishers take note!), he has never been a canonical writer in Brazil either, and until recently his books have been largely unattainable over there too. The four novels he published between 1956 and 1964 before ceasing to write anything substantial for the 34 years between then and his death, were  more indebted to European surrealism than to Brazilian literary trends, and certainly do not fit in with the outsider’s view of Brazil better represented by the writing of someone like Jorge Amado. To give one example, his last novel, O Púcaro Búlgaro (The Bulgarian Jug) describes the ill-fated attempt by a band of explorers to find out whether or not Bulgaria actually exists. In light of that, this collection is worth reading for the introduction alone, which contains the following excerpt from an interview with the great man who, like his work. was difficult, distant but also hilarious:

Interviewer: Today, with all the technological process that’s been made, is it now possible to say for certain whether or not Bulgaria exists?

Campos de Carvalho: It doesn’t.

Interviewer: Do any other countries not exist?

CDC: Argentina. I was there two years ago, but still I wasn’t convinced. I went to Mar del Plata…to a casino… The casino did exist though, I left all my money there.

His travel diaries are no less wry. Here he is on London: ‘A city where, when it’s not raining, a huge storm is always brewing…P.S. – in London there’s a newspaper called The Sun; it only comes out twice a year.’

I then looked at a transcription of an interview with another novelist, José J. Veiga, called Atrás do Mágico Relance (A Glimpse behind the magic). Unlike Campos de Carvalho, two of Veiga’s books did make it into English in the early 70s, though sadly they have never been reprinted. Associated at the time with the ‘boom’ generation of Latin American ‘magic realist’ authors such as Julio Cortázar and Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Veiga’s work is rather different, though it certainly deals with the fantastic in an equally effective way. The interview was fully of interesting insights, but I was particularly struck by Veiga’s reply when asked if he was influenced by (Spanish language) magic realism:

Veiga: No…I only read Garcia Márquez and Borges after having published two or three of my own books, so I wasn’t influenced by them…we (ie Brazilian writers) are unknown to…Spanish-Americans, but they’re also ignored by us, that is, there’s no exchange between us…there never was.

The novel of Veiga’s I’m keen to translate, Sombras de reis barbudos (Shadows of bearded kings) a wonderful blend of bildungsroman, political allegory and fantasy, has been translated into Spanish, but like other Brazilian prose masterpieces such as Mário de Andrade’s Macunaíma and João Guimarães Rosa’s Grande Sertão: Veredas, it’s very much out of print in its sister tongue. Things aren’t so different here; most informed readers could name one or two Spanish-American authors, maybe Gabriel García Marquez or Jorge Luís Borges, but might find it harder to name their Lusophone peers.

 

Finally, I went back a few centuries to Pero de Magalhaes Gandavo’s History of the Province Sancta Cruz, which we commonly call Brazil. The translation, by John B. Stetson Jr, is accompanied by a facsimile of the 1576 original, which the translator first encountered in the BL’s predecessor, the reading room at the British Museum. I came across this account via some recent work I did translating a piece on Brazil for a history magazine, which discussed Gandavo’s descriptions of ‘the Natives of the province’. The fact that he does not discuss them until the tenth chapter, after first addressing the country’s geography, colonial government, plans, animals and, intriguingly, ‘a marine monster that was killed in the captaincy of São Vicente in 1564’, is telling enough. Like Bernal Diaz, who documented the conquest of Mexico some years before, Gandavo just cannot see the ‘natives’ as properly human. They are at once a homogenous mass—‘Although these natives are much divided and have many different names for their tribes, still they are one in their appearance, their condition, their customs and their rites’—and uniquely barbaric, lacking any sense of morality—‘They live at their ease, without any preoccupation save eating, drinking and killing people; and so they grow very fat, but with any vexation they immediately grow thin again’. Undeniably ridiculous as the latter part sounds, such attitudes had appalling consequences: the deaths of up to 95% of the pre-colonial population. And these encounters bring up a fascinating insight into the difficulties of translation in a wider sense: how might someone like Gandavo, a well-off, Portuguese Catholic, have accurately conveyed the complex, and yet totally alien societies he witnessed. 

Gandavo

2 hours, 450 years traversed, one hemisphere crossed. Not bad for a first attempt!

By Rahul Bery

British Library Translator in Residence

 

19 July 2018

From Neptune to Trident: How the Colonial Deputed Seal for Barbados evolved into a national symbol

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Seals, coins, stamps and paper money share a much closer relationship than first meets the eye. This can be illustrated by the first ever colonial deputed seal made for Barbados.

Figure 1

It was engraved in June 1663 by the famous medallist, coin and seal engraver Thomas Simon.

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The obverse face depicting: ‘His Majesty’s Royal Effigies, representing Neptune in a Chariot drawn by two sea horses, and robed with his royal robes and crowned with a trident in his left hand’ with the inscribed motto ‘ET PENITUS TOTO REGNANTES ORBE BRITANNOS.’

As demonstrated by William and Mary’s later seal for Barbados engraved c.1690, although depictions of the Monarch changed from reign to reign, the basic design remained unaltered until the island gained independence in 1966.

Figure 3

Being the legal instrument of Barbados colonial governance and authority, the seal would have been used to authenticate a wide range of official documentation. Its imagery was also adopted across various formats as is demonstrated by George III’s Seal for Barbados engraved c.1760.

Figure 4

The design of this particular seal formed the basis of the Reverse Face designs for Barbados’ 1792 Copper Half Penny and Penny coinage.

Figure 5

Likewise Victoria’s Barbados Seal engraved by Benjamin Wyon in 1837 was used on the island’s most iconic postage and revenue stamps all typo or recess printed by Thomas De La Rue & Company in London.

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This design first appears without the inscription upon Barbados’ 1892-1903 Colonial Badge Definitive Issue.

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It was also used on the Barbados 1897 Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria Issue.

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In fact representations of Victoria’s seal appear upon the definitive stamps of Barbados throughout the reign of Edward VII and the 23 July 1912 definitive stamps of George V.

Figure 9

For the Barbados 16 June 1916 Definitive Issue, Victoria’s Seal was replaced by that of George V’s and the seal’s motto appears upon the stamp for the first time.

Figure 10

The motto then disappears on the Barbados 1921-1924 Definitive Issue stamps,

Figure 11

before reappearing on the Barbados 1925-1935 Definitive Issue stamps.

Figure 12

The Barbados 3 January 1938 Definitive Issue then adopts the seal of King George VI with the motto.

Figure 13

Once the security printing firm Bradbury Wilkinson and Company Limited take over the printed contracts for the island’s stamps, this longstanding design tradition is abandoned. Their recess printed Barbados 1 May 1950 Definitive Issue $2.40 stamp is the only one depicting a seal, Simon’s original seal for Charles II.

Figure 14

This design is repeated again on the $2.40 stamp of Elizabeth II’s Barbados 13 April 1953 Definitive Issue. After this the seal theme disappears from the stamp design altogether.

In addition to stamps, a number of the colonial seals have also been depicted on the successive paper money issues circulating on the Island during the first half of the twentieth century. George VI’s seal first appears on the obverse face of the Government of Barbados 1938-1949 Currency Note Issues printed by Bradbury Wilkinson.

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Later it appears on the reverse face of the British Caribbean Territories 1950-1951 Currency Note Issue

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printed by the same company before eventually being replaced by Elizabeth II’s on the reverse face of the 1953-1964 Issue.

Figure 17

Likewise, the seal design was also reproduced upon Police Uniform Cap Badges, during the reign of Elizabeth II.

Figure 18

Colonial Flags and even buildings such as the Barbados Mutual Life Assurance Building on Broad Street in Bridgetown constructed c. 1895 also carried imagery based upon the seal design.

Figure 20
Figure 20

In 1966, during the build up to Independence, the Government of Barbados arranged an open competition to design a new national flag. Grantley W. Prescod’s globally recognised winning design comprises a vertical triband of ultramarine and gold with a black trident-head centred upon the gold band.

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The blue represents the sea and sky of Barbados, whilst the gold represents the sand of the Island’s beaches. The Trident represents the mythical sea god, Neptune who was depicted by successive monarch on all of the colonial seals. In effect Prescod reclaimed the old colonial imagery, before reshaping and transformed it into a new postcolonial National Symbol. Following independence in 1966, this trident-design has in turn been mass reproduced by the Government of Barbados across a wide range of mediums. Notable examples include, the Barbados 17 August 2016 $2.20 stamp printed by BDT International depicting the national flag.

Figure 22

Likewise the reverse face of the Barbados 1997 1 cent coin depicts a Trident.

Figure 23

The Central Bank of Barbados 2013 Issue banknotes also depict the Tridents within their designs,

Figure 24

and finally the Trident can be found on monuments including the Independence Arch on Chamberlain Bridge and Independence Square both located in Bridgetown.

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Figure 26

It is important to remember that these colonial and postcolonial representations first introduced by Thomas Simon’s Barbados Seal in 1663 have been reproduced millions of times across different formats. This mechanical mass reproduction has enabled them to be encountered by Barbadians on a daily basis within a wide range of social, economic and political situations for almost four hundred years.

Sociologists like Michael Billig’s contend that an underlying, non-extremist and endemic form of ‘banal nationalism’ is brought into existence by such everyday encounters with representations of authority upon official and consumable objects including coins, stamps, paper money and flags. From a colonial perspective this would have helped to shape the development of a colonial identity for Barbados, at the same time helping to facilitate a proto-national identity from which drives for independence partially formed. Nevertheless as Barthes and others readily point, out such visual representations are inherrently polysemous and unstable. This allowed the new postcolonial Barbadian ruling elite to reclaim and reappropriate an old colonial symbol. Having done this they could then use the symbol in new and different ways to signify a break from the colonial past whilst developing a new national symbol at the same time.

- Richard Scott Morel, curator, philatelic collections

23 May 2018

Indigenous Australian Comic Characters in the British Library

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Left: X-Men Anthology featuring Gateway. Right: The compiled Millennium series, featuring Betty Clawman. See endnotes for publication details.

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.[1] 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.’[2]
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.[3]

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.’[4]  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.’[5] 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!’[6] 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)[7]. 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.[8] 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]

 

References:

[1] 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]

[2] 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]

[3] 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]

[4] Millennium, DC Comics, p32

[5] ibid

[6] ibid p33

[7] ibid p40

[8] 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.

25 September 2017

Following Sarah Royce

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In 1849, Sarah Royce left her Iowa home and set off with her husband and daughter for California. Reading Royce’s stoic memoir, A Frontier Lady (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1932; shelfmark: 010409.ee.40) I wondered how she really felt as she crossed America in pursuit of her husband’s dreams. My curiosity evolved in my second novel, which follows two women from Chicago to California during the Gold Rush.

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 Sarah Royce. A Frontier Lady: Recollections of the Gold Rush and Early California. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1932. (Shelfmark: 010409.ee.40) 

I’ve been studying first-hand accounts of other women who made that very journey—from the good-natured letters of Mary-Jane Megquier to the pessimistic journal of Mary Bailey. But though these accounts are often vivid, I’ve struggled to imagine the landscapes they describe—the blankness of the plains, the bitter waste of the desert, the steep green relief of the Sierras. So, with the support of the Eccles Centre, I decided to make the journey myself.

The California Zephyr train travels the 2,438 miles from Chicago to San Francisco. It broadly follows Royce’s route; but where Royce’s journey took six months, the train takes fifty-two hours. It was a thrill to watch scenery I’d previously encountered only in books—the lonely prairies, the great bloody sunsets, the strange sunken rivers of the high desert.

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The prairies of Iowa. Image, author's own.

Seeing the landscape first-hand made a journey that was previously only an idea, a reality. And while I often encountered the unexpected—I hadn’t grasped that the trail was continuously flanked by mountains from the onset of the Rockies, nor had I anticipated that the Utah desert would look so like the moon—much of the landscape was as I had pictured it in the library.

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A sunken river in Utah. Image, author's own.

The trip was revelatory; but it also gave me confidence to write what I’d already imagined. For me, confidence is one of the most important outputs of researching fiction. As Zadie Smith said, “It’s such a confidence trick, writing a novel. The main person you have to trick into confidence is yourself.”

Hannah Kohler

Hannah is a joint winner of this year's Eccles British Library Writer's Award. More information about this Award, and all of the Eccles Centre's activities, can be found at www.bl.uk/eccles-centre 

Sources: Apron Full of Gold: The Letters of Mary Jane Megquier from San Francisco, 1849-1856, edited with an introduction by Polly Welts Kaufman. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1994 (shelfmark: YA.1995.a.22660); Ho for California!: Women's Overland Diaries from the Huntington Library, edited and annotated by Sandra L Myres. San Marino: Huntington Library, 1980 (shelfmark: Document Supply 80/24701).

 

10 July 2017

Australasia in the Americas blog

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The Americas blog is delighted to host the first of series of posts on our Australian collections by Joanne Pilcher, who 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.

I am in the second year of my PhD in the School of Architecture and Design at University of Brighton. My research is into textile design and printing conducted by Aboriginal Australians in the Northern Territory from 1988 to present.[1] Some Aboriginal art centres have been producing printed or woven textile designs since the 1940s, yet these textiles are often overshadowed by the more widely publicised (and stereotyped by outsiders) Western Desert Style paintings by Aboriginal artists. I am interested in how textile design and production provides a different opportunity for exploration of culture and identity in comparison to the paintings; this is particularly interesting in relation to how the textiles are increasingly turned into clothing. Clothing is often the first signifier of an individual’s identity. As Aboriginal textiles increasingly become wearable expressions of identity accessible to all races and nationalities, I am interested to learn how (or if) this sharing of visual culture can provide the designers with agency either through monetary gain, growing cultural awareness or political representation. This is important as there is still a significant gap in wealth and political representation between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians verses settler Australians.

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It is with this background that I have approached my three month placement at the British Library. As with most PhD projects, my work is rather specific in that is only discusses textile design and only in relation to Aboriginal groups in one specific area of Australia. This placement has provided me with the opportunity to ‘widen my horizon’ and engage with the cultural outputs and representations of knowledges of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups across Australia. Generally, I have been surprised at how comprehensive the British Library’s collection on Indigenous Australian writing is. I have learnt about an array of talented Indigenous Australian novelists, playwrights and poets, such as Andrea James, Daisy Utemorrah and Oodgeroo Noonuccal.[2] I have also learnt a lot about the challenges of collecting and writing about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledges, a topic I hope to write about in a future blog post. I am now constantly on the look out for exciting new publications in this field that I can add to my growing list of suggestions of books for the library to collect. I am particularly interested in activist or grass roots publications such as zines that relate to current discussions on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups in Australian politics.[3]

As a non-Indigenous dual nationality British/Australian scholar, I have taken the role as an ‘informed outsider’ in both my PhD research and the British Library placement. In my PhD work I hope to use oral history interviews in order to put the voices and experiences of Aboriginal Australian textile designers and printers at the centre of my research. I have reflected upon this during the British Library placement where I have focused on written material created by, or in collaboration with, Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander and Maori people of Australia and New Zealand. I have paid most attention to attempts to share cultures and histories with a wider audience; one area I have been particularly interested in is children’s stories and comic books as they provide visually stimulating texts that can be widely disseminated. From the 1980s onwards, there have been quite a few Aboriginal comic book characters but, as Luke Pearson outlines in his article for Indigenous X, ‘very few [characters] have been designed by Aboriginal artists, or written by Aboriginal authors.’ Some of these are represented in the British Library collections, such as the Reg Saunders comic by Hugh Donlan and Adrian Threlfal which depicts the true story of the Indigenous war hero Reg Saunders.[4] I hope to compliment this existing collection with other comics, such as the newly released Cleverman comic which accompanies the television series of the same name by Ryan Griffen who created it so his son could have Aboriginal super heroes to look up to.

After spending four weeks of the placement looking at the Australian collections, I have now turned my attention to the New Zealand collections. This is a new area of research for me and I am excited to learn more about postcolonial politics and culture within Māori groups in New Zealand. I will be interested to compare how the representations of the Indigenous groups of Australia and New Zealand differ in a contemporary context. I welcome any feedback and advice on this project, please feel free to tweet me: @JoannePilcher1

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All of the works I have been looking at are available on the British Library  Explore Catalogue

I would like to thank the Arts and Humanities Research Council, Design Star Student Development Fund whose financial support has enabled me to undertake this placement.

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By Joanne Pilcher 

[1] As my research focuses on Indigenous Australian groups in the Northern Territory, I have used only ‘Aboriginal’, when I am referring to Indigenous Australians across Australia I will use ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander’.

[2] James, A., Playbox Theatre Company, & Melbourne Workers Theatre. (2003). Yanagai! Yanagai! (Current theatre series). Sydney: Currency Press in association with Playbox Theatre, Melbourne. [Shelfmark: Asia, Pacific & Africa YD.2004.a.5544]

Utemorrah, D., & Torres, Pat. (1992). Do Not go Around The Edges Broome: Magabala. [Shelfmark: General Reference Collection LB.31.a.4409 General Reference Collection LB.31.a.4409]

Oodgeroo Noonuccal. (2008). My People. (4th ed.). Milton, Qld.: John Wiley & Sons Australia. [Shelfmark General Reference Collection: YK.2012.a.29602 General Reference Collection YK.2012.a.29602]

[3] This article from the Guardian’s Indigenous Australians blog gives some of the context behind recognition. https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2017/may/25/constitutional-recognition-and-why-the-uluru-talks-matter-explainer

[4] Dolan, H., & Threlfall, Adrian. (2015). Reg Saunders : An Indigenous War Hero. Sydney, Newsouth Publishing [Shelfmark: General Reference Collection YKL.2017.b.766]

02 May 2017

Women in the California Gold Rush

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I’m using my 2017 Eccles British Library Writer’s Award to research and write my second novel, Catspaw, which follows two women from Chicago to the Sierra foothills during the California Gold Rush. Women are largely excluded from the mythic-historic narrative of the Gold Rush. Those that do appear are marginal, stereotypical characters: the long-suffering, godly pioneer mother (Sarah Royce), or the savvy prostitute (Belle Cora). I want to tell a story of two women who don’t conform to these stereotypes.

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Portrait of Helen Carpenter (Courtesy of the Edward E. Ayer Collection, the Newberry Library, Chicago), from Ho for California!: Women's Overland Diaries from the Huntington Library, edited and annotated by Sandra L. Myres. San Marino: Huntington Library, 1980 Shelfmark: 80/24701

Women were in the minority in the 1849 migration west; but they were there, and they encountered difficulties and opportunities that were unimaginable back east. I wanted to understand the experiences of these women in their own words. Sarah Royce’s renowned memoir, A Frontier Lady (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1932; shelfmark 010409.ee.40) left me with more questions than answers. Written at the urging of her philosopher son Josiah Royce, it tells the story he wanted her to tell—one of Christian fortitude as foundational to California. It left me wondering how she really felt as she left Iowa with her somewhat hapless husband and toddler daughter, bound for the unknown. John Irving wrote that "all memoir is fiction"; but I wanted to read female first-hand accounts that weren’t so starkly in service of a higher narrative.

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Portrait of Mary Jane Megquier, from a daguerreotype about 1853, from Apron Full of Gold: The Letters of Mary Jane Megquier from San Francisco, 1849-1856. Edited by Robert Glass Cleland. San Marino: Huntington Library, 1949. Shelfmark: W.P.9803/40

The Eccles Centre’s bibliographical guide, Women in the Trans-Mississippi West, 1840-1900 (London: British Library, 1999; shelfmark YC.2000.a.575 ), helped me locate these accounts. From the letters of the outspoken Mary Jane Megquier, with her longing for "a line" from home and her good-natured complaints of "jiggers in [her] feet, a small insect that lays its eggs in your flesh"; to the witty journal of Helen Carpenter ("there is nothing in sight to merit the name Rocky Mountains—no rocks"); to the letters of Louise Clappe, with her sheer enchantment with "this solemnly beautiful wilderness"—these first-hand accounts are invaluable in helping me develop the voices of my female protagonists. I can’t imagine writing my novel without them.

Hannah Kohler

References: Apron Full of Gold: The Letters of Mary Jane Megquier from San Francisco, 1849-1856. Edited by Robert Glass Cleland. San Marino: Huntington Library, 1949. (Shelfmark: W.P.9803/40); California in 1851: The Letters of Dame Shirley, introduction and notes by Carl I. Wheat. San Francisco: Grabhorn Press, 1933. 2 vols. (Shelfmark: YD.2004.a.1634 & YD.2004.a.1493); Ho for California! Women's Overland Diaries from the Huntington Library, edited and annotated by Sandra L. Myres. San Marino, CA: Huntington Library Press, 1980. (Shelfmark: 80/24701