American Collections blog

90 posts categorized "Eccles Centre"

04 December 2018

American Cooking for English Kitchens

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Cover of American Cooking for English Kitchens by Grace Hogarth (1957) 7939.b.47.

In 1928, Edith Fulcher published American Cooking for English Homes, a recipe book 'sent into the world as a home missionary to fill a long-felt want': to modernise British cooking. The cookbook aimed to provide simple and economical recipes, bringing American recipes to English households. Fulcher advises housewives tired of cooking the same thing every day to explore the cookery of other nations for inspiration and for money saving tips. 

In her preface, Fulcher argues that America's cuisine is varied and cosmopolitan thanks to its immigrant population, and describes the growing importance of vegetables in the modern American diet: 'The modern tendency is toward lighter meals and a vegetable diet, substituting salads, eggs and vegetables for meat. It is certainly more economical and a pleasant change from the once ubiquitous hot joint'. Reproduced below is an intriguing recipe for banana salad sandwiches with mayonnaise:

From Edith Fulcher's American Cooking for English Homes (1928). 7941.df.6.

Three decades later, in 1957, Grace Hogarth embarked on a similar mission with her book American Cooking for English Kitchens, adapting American recipes for English homes, measurements, and ingredients. The book was the result of culture shock. Hogarth opens her book by stating: 'My first sight of the English kitchen that was to be my own filled me with panic'. Having got used to using a larder rather than a refrigerator, Hogarth writes about the art of using leftovers, explains the difference between American cookies and British biscuits, and outlines the many uses of aluminium foil, 'now obtainable in England'.

I have reproduced her recipe for Boston baked beans. As Hogarth puts it 'The result is as different from the product sold in tins as good from evil!'. Let us know if you agree!



31 October 2018

Putting to Ruins the Absence: Jason Moran, James Reese Europe, and Orlando Patterson

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Last night, I had the distinct pleasure of joining the audience for the first performance of Jason Moran's latest work James Reese Europe and the Absence of Ruins at the Barbican.  The project is the third in a 'trilogy' which Moran has described as a 'long portrait of Harlem'.  All three have revisited key figures in the jazz history of the neighbourhood: Thelonius Monk (IN MY MIND), Fats Waller (Fats Waller Dance Party) and now James Reese Europe.  While the first two are familiar names to most people, few will recognise the latter.  This is an oversight that becomes increasingly disquieting the more one learns about Europe's musical, social, and military accomplishments.

At the British Library last week, Moran spoke with fellow jazz musician Soweto Kinch about his motivations for looking closer at James Reese Europe, and the many ideas that emerged in the process. 

Jason Moran at the British Library. Photo credit: Francisca Fuentes Rettig


He highlighted how Europe is a pivotal figure in discussions of so-called 'proto-jazz'.  As well as being an exceedingly popular composer and bandleader, he was also an organiser and proponent for African American musicians.  His belief in and support for his professional community, and the nascent form of music that was emerging from it, was unwavering.  In 1910 Europe incorporated the previously informal Clef Club, which functioned as a venue and a society that supported the rights of professional black musicians. 



Two years later, he organised a concert at Carnegie Hall for the Clef Club Orchestra to raise funds for the Colored Music Settlement School at which solely music by black composers was performed.  By 1918, when he enlisted to serve in WWI, Europe was a well-recognised popular figure, whose musical scores sold in large quantities (the Library holds 70 of these).




During his military service, Europe served as the bandleader for the 369th regiment who were deployed in France.  In a related symposium earlier in the day, Revisiting the Black Parisian Moment 1918-19, we had heard how US generals refused to deploy African Americans for active service, instead segregating personnel into supportive roles such as building camps and retrieving the bodies of fallen soldiers.  By contrast, the French had deployed colonial African soldiers and were prepared to fight alongside African Americans, especially as the casualty rate grew.  Consequently, Europe and the 369th saw action in France, for which many of them received the Croix de Guerre.  The music they performed took the country by storm, and a wave of professional musicians from both the US and the Caribbean (for example, Alexandre Stellio) were able to capitalise on this.


Returning home in 1919, the 369th received a hero's welcome with a parade along fifth avenue which saw hundreds of thousands turn out for the occasion.  With clear admiration of their professional ability and tenacity, Moran recounted how for the length of 80 blocks the 369th played as they marched in the New York February cold.  They played popular tunes that would be recognised by the mostly-white crowd, however upon reaching Harlem the music changed and they played in a style familiar to their fellow community members.  Moran highlighted how this encoded double-performance, that uses different styles and carries separate meanings for different audiences, has long been a strategy of black music which was historically used as a covert means of communication.

"Parade of Famous 369th Infantry on Fifth Avenue New York City. Colonel "Bill" Hayward's famous "Hell Fighters" of the 369th Infantry march by crowds at the New York Public Library 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue." Source: Library of Congress


This observation sheds some light on the subtitle of Moran's project: An Absence of Ruins.  We were told how this emerged during an early conversation with filmmaker John Akomfrah, while Moran was in Rome with 'ruins everywhere'.  Akomfrah signalled the work of Caribbean-born sociologist, Orlando Patterson who has published widely on the historical and social legacies of slavery and underdevelopment.  Additionally, Patterson has authored three novels which explore these issues from a first person perspective.  His second novel is titled 'An Absence of Ruins' and itself borrows its title from the poem The Royal Palms... an absence of ruins by Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, quoted in the epigraph to Patterson's novel:

Here there are no heroic palaces

Nettled in sea-green vines or built

On maize savannahs the cat-thighed, stony faces

Of Egypt's cradle, easily unriddled;

If art is where the greatest ruins are,

Our art is in those ruins we became,

You will not find in these green, desert places

One stone that found us worthy of its name,

Nor how, lacking the skill to beat things over flame

We peopled archipelagoes by one star.


For both Walcott and Patterson, the term 'an absence of ruins' becomes a cipher for the Caribbean's colonial legacies of racial violence.  Walcott makes allusions to how this is lived in experience ('Our art is in those ruins we became'), and Patterson takes this further.  Through the character of 'Alexander Blackman', Patterson describes the existential experience of living in a permanent condition of exile in order to ask what does it mean to have a history when that history is characterised by the ruptures of violence, oppression, and temporal and geographical dislocation?

In a central passage in the novel, Blackman experiences a crisis in which he fantasises about a Kingston built on ancient ruins rather than the bodies of slaves and the genocide of indigenous peoples.  This induces him to seek out his mother with the hope that she can perform a 'replanting of roots' by singing him songs.  Indeed, the novel proposes music as a potential solution to this problem of historical rootlessness associated with New World black memory.  The syncopation, improvisation, and encoded messages of jazz in particular are proffered as a language for modern black memory that isn't based on the traditional 'archaelogies' of knowledge and memory.

Weaving together these various concerns - black memory, historical absences, James Reese Europe's overlooked legacy, the black language of jazz in its social context - Moran followed  in Europe's footsteps as bandleader and educator by working with young musicians from London based community music education group Tomorrow's Warriors.  Jointly, they paid tribute through a deeply moving and joyful call and response to this extraordinary man, the musicians of the 369th infantry, and to jazz in an evening of musical evocation, transmission, and evolution.

Soweto Kinch, Jason Moran, and John Akomfrah at the British Library. Photo credit Francisca Fuentes Rettig


Jason Moran will be performing James Reese Europe and An Absence of Ruin at Cardiff on the 31 October and Paisley on the 4 November.

- Francisca Fuentes Rettig


Wider reading/listening:

Horace Orlando Lloyd Patterson An Absence of Ruins, BL shelfmark: Nov.9783. 

Horace Orlando Lloyd Patterson and Andrew Salkey, The Children of Sisyphus, audio recording, BL shelfmark:  C134/470 and C134/71;

R. Reid Badger, "James Reese Europe and the Prehistory of Jazz", American Music, Vol. 7, no. 1 (Spring 1989), pp.48-67.

Peter N. Nelson, A more unbending battle : the Harlem Hellfighters' struggle for freedom in WWI and equality at home, BL shelfmark: Document Supply m09/.24328 

Stephen L. Harris, Harlem's Hell Fighters : the African-American 369th Infantry in World War I , BL shelfmark YC.2005.a.11047

Jeffrey T. Sammons and John H. Morrow Jr.,  Harlem's Rattlers and the Great War : the undaunted 369th Regiment and the African American quest for equality, BL shelfmark YD.2015.a.1091 

25 October 2018

Wilson Bueno, Portuñol/Portunhol, and Interlanguages

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The OED defines an interlanguage as ‘An artificial auxiliary language’ or ‘A linguistic system typically developed by a student before acquiring fluency in a foreign language, and containing elements of both his or her native tongue and of the target language’. For me, this doesn’t quite cover the geographical and cultural circumstances from which many hybrid languages originate, especially around border areas. For example, the term ‘Spanglish’ could describe: a) the language spoken by an American teenager of Mexican origin, freely mixing English words into Spanish grammatical structures; b) a native English speaker, in the US or elsewhere, attempting to speak incomplete or imperfect Spanish; or c) the common language spoken between a Mexican and an American in a border town such as El Paso or Laredo.

Whatever the definition, the inherently unstable nature of interlanguages (Wikipedia lists hundreds of them, including Camfranglish, Scots Yiddish and Greeklish), makes it hard to think imagine them having clear rules, let alone a literature. The Portuguese/Spanish hybrid predominantly spoken on either side of the borders between Brazil and Uruguay, Paraguay or Argentina doesn’t even have a single spelling, as the choice between ‘Portuñol’ and ‘Portunhol’ depends on what you consider to be the ‘default’ language. What’s more, it varies hugely even in this (relatively) small area. Linguists have shown that, as well as a language used for communication between people who speak what are ultimately fairly similar languages, there also exist settled dialects of Portunhol spoken in the home and within communities in Northern Argentina and Uruguay.

This got me thinking how on earth one would translate it into English, which led me to wonder if there was any literature actually composed solely or principally in Portunhol. Thanks to Twitter, I know the answer is yes, and the foundational text of this literature is the Brazilian writer Wilson Bueno’s Mar Paraguayo (Paraguayan Sea).

Wilson Bueno Mar Paraguayo
Wilson Bueno, Mar paraguayo (São Paulo, Brasil: Iluminuras, 1992) YF.2012.a.10831


Bueno’s novella is not exactly an ‘authentic’ depiction of Portunhol, rather an impressionistic idiolect semi-devised by the author, befitting the oxymoronic title (Paraguay is infamously landlocked). In truth, it is a mixture of three languages: Spanish Portuguese and Guaraní, the indigenous language spoken by nearly 5 million Bolivians, Brazilians and especially Paraguayans. It is completely unique to dip into:

‘Si, el infierno, añaretã, añaretãmeguá, existe e, creio, forçando certa honestidad, que el cielo a mi se afigura, acima de todo, el deseo de siempre e sempre más e mais amor – inquieta insaciabilidad que me complete nua llorando en la viuda cama de casal, tan larga, llorando la certeza sin duda de que un dia, un dia, un dia a gente se va a morir: tecové, tecové, tecovepavaerã’

I’d say the grammar and syntax is closer to Spanish, but there is a fairly equal mix of vocabulary, with the Guaraní words relating to death, life and damnation less frequent but of key importance. Interestingly, the phrase ‘el deseo de siempre e sempre más e mais amor’ includes both the Spanish and Portuguese words for ‘always’ and ‘more’.

Guarani glossary from Mar Paraguayo


As to how we translate this, well the answer is just as open as the language itself. The translator of Mar Paraguayo into English, Erin Mouré, is Canadian, and rather than creating some convoluted way of mirroring Spanish and Portuguese in English, she has chosen to go with her own local equivalent, a mix of English and French. The Guaraní words (as unfamiliar to the average English speaker as they would be to most Spanish and Portuguese speakers) have been left as they are, which helps maintain a sense of place. The results are fascinating:

‘la ancestral speech of fathers and grands-pères that infinitely vanishes into memory, they entertain all speech et tricot: these Guaraní voices eternalize so simply as they go on weaving: ñandu: there is no better fabric than the web des leaves tissées all together, ñandu, together and between the arabesques that, symphoniques, interweave, in a warp and weft of green and bird et chanson, in the happy amble of a freedom: ñanduti: ñandurenimbó:’

So I ask myself, were I to translate a story or poem from Portunhol/Portuñol what solution would I go for? I suppose the fact that I live in the capital (Cardiff) of a bilingual country could help, and the closest thing I have to an interlanguage is the Welsh-English pidgin I occasionally use with my daughter, her teachers and other patient Cymraeg speakers. If every English translator living geographically close to another language were to do this, a great number of wildly differing translations could be produced, all equally valid. My translation, Paraguayan Môr, coming soon. Watch this space…


Rahul  Bery

Translator-in Residence 2018-2019

British Library




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.

Volume 2 cover
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.


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.   


Lead Curator, Americas


09 October 2018

Closing thoughts on the “North American Migrant Narratives” PhD Placement Scheme

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As my three-month placement at the British Library reaches its end, the time has come to reflect on my experience. I truly encourage fellow PhD students to apply to next year’s placements. I had a marvellous time, and despite the alluring prospect of not having to commute to London anymore, I know I will miss working for the Library.  

So what exactly did I do?

My role was to assess the American collections’ holdings in migrant literature published since the 1980s, by writers of African or Caribbean descent, in Canada and the USA.

Concretely, that meant doing a lot of research online, in literary anthologies and academic publications to find books by migrant writers and check each title against the Library’s main catalogue, Explore.

If a copy wasn’t held, then I would add it to my acquisition list spreadsheet. By the time I had finished, there were over 600 titles on this list.

Laura's acquisition list
Laura's acquisitions list



The usual selection process for the North American Collections is quite simple to understand: they have a very large list of publishers from which selection is made based on reader and subject categories that are relevant to the collections. This is determined by curators who follow the Library’s Content Strategy.

My job was to check the most recurring publishers on my acquisition list against the North American list of publishers to ensure these were received in future. As you can see from my spreadsheet, some patterns emerged very clearly: the BL wasn’t receiving books by publishers like Akashic Books and Arte Publico Press, both notable publishers of migrant literature.

Alongside this, I did some archival research. My readings led me to investigate Canadian cultural magazines that had promoted migrant literature at its early stages. I didn’t have much hope in finding La Parole Meteque as Worldcat  (an international bibliographic database) suggested that only three libraries worldwide held copies of it, and even they didn’t own all its issues. But after emailing several second-hand bookshops, members of the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of Canada, I managed to get hold of 16 issues which will be added to the collections.

I also got in touch with collectives that organize creative writing workshops for immigrants and refugees, in order to collect the community-published items which emerged from these collectives. In Toronto for example, the Sick Muse Art Projects runs a workshop for women immigrants which produces an annual zine.  A similar workshop was launched in 2017 across Toronto, Ottawa and Windsor to address domestic and sexual violence among immigrant populations. A graphic novel was born from this multicultural collaboration.


What did I get from this placement?

Apart from working on my project, I was given the opportunity to gain insight into the Library’s practices and to gain new professional skills. Here are a few of the things I did:

  • I met with and shadowed several members of staff, including a cataloguer, a bibliographic editor, curators, a web archiving manager, a conservationist and digitisation staff.
  • I attended departmental staff meetings, event organisation meetings, and a new curatorial and librarianship reading group that addressed contemporary issues libraries are faced with.
  • I sat on meetings with book dealers and observed the acquisition process.
  • I learnt about copyright and intellectual property clearance.
  • I developed my writing and presentation skills for non-academic audiences by communicating my research on the American Collections’ blog, attending a training course on blogging, and presenting my research and findings in front of BL staff.

I also gained better insight into the contemporary publishing industry in the US and Canada (which benefits my PhD thesis too) and found, from the data I had collected, that:

  • Literature by migrant writers still tends to be published by independent or small presses rather than by big publishers.
  • Only a minority of migrant writers become part of the mainstream literary scene.
  • Many migrant writers turn to non-traditional modes of publication such as self-publishing and social media.

To a certain extent, the American Collections’ holdings mirrored these publishing trends. Before I arrived, the BL already had most migrant narratives published by major publishers, but what was missing from its collection were the ones published by small presses.

Kings Library
The British Library, creative commons licence



Now more importantly, how did my work contribute to the British Library?

The acquisition of books, archival material and the subscription to literary magazines I recommended will, hopefully, make the British Library’s holdings more representative of the North American multicultural literary scene.

The research I conducted identified areas of concern with the BL’s present holdings and collection practices in terms of migrant literature. One of my major findings was the gap in the Francophone Canadian literary holdings: established writers and publications by major publishers were absent for the catalogue. Another was the issue of web-based literature which we are not legally equipped to collect (I wrote about this here).

Because I have identified these gaps, the American Collections team are now aware of them and can strive to prevent them from widening even more. The report I have written, which presents my findings and offers practical suggestions for more inclusive holdings, will inform future collection practices and strengthen curatorial knowledge in this area.


On a final note, I would like to thank the Eccles Centre and the Americas Collections team for supporting my project and for their warmth, the Research and Development team for setting up these placements in the first place and organizing extra activities for us newcomers, and the European Collections team for welcoming me on their floor. I am especially grateful to my supervisor, Francisca Fuentes, for having given me such a fantastic opportunity and for her invaluable help and guidance throughout this project.

- Laura Gallon

Laura Gallon was a PhD placement student at the British Library where she worked 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 was supported by the Eccles Centre for American Studies.

05 October 2018

My Ántonia – 100 year on

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I recently discovered that this year marks the 100th anniversary of Willa Cather’s My Ántonia.  This novel was the final part of Cather’s ‘prairie trilogy’ – following O Pioneers! and The Song of the Lark – and it remains one of her best-loved works.

My Antonia

Willa Cather, My Ántonia. London: William Heinemann, 1919. Shelfmark: NN.5641.

Given that we try to keep these blogs somewhat timely, my hope was that it had been written towards the end of 1918! A quick Google search failed to confirm or disprove this, so I turned instead to Book Review Digest Retrospective, 1903-1982. This fantastic electronic database cites (and sometimes provides excerpts from) reviews of adult and children’s fiction and non-fiction in over 500 English language magazines, newspapers and academic journals.

The earliest contemporary review it lists for My Ántonia appears The New York Times on 6 October 1918. It also cites reviews from The Nation, The New York Call, The Bookman, Booklist, The Dial and The Independent (a weekly magazine published in New York City).  Most of these publications are held at the British Library. Their reviews of My Ántonia are overwhelmingly positive. The Nation calls Cather ‘an artist whose imagination is at home in her own land, among her own people’ and notes the novel is 'among the best of our recent interpretations of American life' . The Bookman declares the story to be ‘true to the Nebraskan soil of [Cather’s] own childhood, and therefore true to America and the world’. And for The Independent, Ántonia's struggle on the frontier is ‘full of human appeal and the fascination of the making of Americans from the foreign born.’

Willa Cather House II

Willa Cather House, Red Cloud, Nebraska. Image: Ammodramus, 2010. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons. 

Throughout the early twentieth century, Cather continued to be well-regarded by the majority of critics and authors. In 1923 she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her fifth novel, One of Ours (1922). And in 1930 – while accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature – Sinclair Lewis famously declared that Cather, Theodore Dreiser, Ernest Hemingway and Sherwood Anderson were the only contemporary vital forces in American letters. Indeed, Lewis ‘salutes them with joy’ for giving to the United States – a nation ‘which has mountains and endless prairies, enormous cities and lost farm cabins’ – a literature worthy of its enormity. (New York Times, 13 December 1930). 

In spite of Lewis’s enthusiasm, however, Cather’s focus upon these very same endless prairies and lost farm cabins doubtless contributed to her later being periodically marginalised as a regional writer and omitted from discussions about 20th century literature in the decades that followed.

Willa Cather with necklace fom Sarah Orne Jewett

 Willa Cather, ca. 1912. Wearing a necklace given to her by Sarah Orne Jewett. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Yet, Cather’s own take on the importance of place in My Ántonia is interesting. In an interview in 1924 she acknowledges that the title character is tied to the soil. But she also asserts that she could just as well have written a story of a Czech baker living in Chicago ‘and it would have been the same.’ The story in Chicago would, Cather concedes, have been ‘smearier, joltier, noiser, less sugar and more sand’. But still it would have been a story that expressed the mood and spirit of the people that she knew; the immigrant families from Scandinavia, Russia and Bohemia who were forging a new life in a new land.  (New York Times, 21 Dec. 1924).

04 September 2018

Instapoetry & Twiction: social media, short form migrant writing & collection practices

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Have you heard of Instapoetry? In recent years, a new literary phenomenon has emerged – writing via social media. The poetry shared on Instagram has helped boost poetry sales significantly. Rupi Kaur’s book of collected instapoems, Milk and Honey (2014), remained on the New York Times Bestseller List for over 77 weeks, was translated into more than 25 languages and has sold upwards of 2.5 million copies worldwide. Kaur, hailed as the “Queen of ‘Instapoets’” by Rolling Stone Magazine, is a Punjabi-Sikh who moved to Canada at age 4, and started her career writing short texts on Tumblr and Instagram in 2013.

 Rupi Kaur

Rupi Kaur on tour. Wikimedia Commons 2017.

After years of submitting her poems and receiving rejections, Kaur considered self-publishing.  As her number of Instagram followers grew – she now has over 2.9 million – she was picked up by an American publisher (Andrews McMeel Publishing).  Her style is distinctive: most of her texts are accompanied by a simple illustration, and she writes exclusively in lowercase in a nod to Gurmukhi script (one of the scriptures used by Punjabi Sikhs) and her cultural heritage.


Instagram post by @rupikaur, 26/05/2018



Kaur is both the highest-selling and most controversial of Instapoets, but she is by no means one of a kind. Other influential instapoets include:

What I find striking in this list is that among these successful instapoets, the majority are, if not women, then openly feminist, and come from ethnic minorities or immigrant backgrounds. Regardless of the literary quality of these texts, what this suggests is that these authors, who may struggle to find mainstream publishers for their work, are finding a creative outlet and an audience using social media.

Supportive communities develop on online international platforms, where people of minorities can share their everyday experiences of gender and racial discrimination with each other, but also talk about universally relatable human experiences. For most of these writers, Instagram is a stepping stone into the publishing industry, but even once their texts are published in book form, they continue sharing new texts and interacting with their readers. Their Instagram pages thus form a kind of a digital anthology.

One of the purposes of my placement is to make sure the North American collections are keeping up to date with migrant writing and collecting important material.  Instapoetry and other online writing challenge our practices, as the Library cannot acquire and collect a website in the same way as it can a book.

The British Library hosts the UK Web Archive, however it is strictly confined to UK-based or relevant websites (either hosted on a uk domain or authored by UK residents) which it can collect through non-print legal deposit. Social media are more complicated to archive – for example Facebook is based in the US and blocks attempts to 'harvest' content.  The UK web archive can pull information from web pages that don’t have a UK based domain if, and only if, there is a clear link with the UK. And even then permission is needed from the creators of the content and copyrights need to be cleared.


The main problem with this situation is that the online space does not function like the print publishing world. Social media destabilise the clear-cut national boundaries that dictate our web archiving collection practices (as underwritten in UK law).  These are just some of the challenges that currently prevent the Library from collecting online literary phenomenons like instapoetry by non-British writers, and that significantly affects  our holdings.

The impact of social media on literature has been huge. The micro-poems, haikus and short texts shared and read on Instagram, and the flash fiction shared on Twitter within the 140-character limit (a genre sometimes called “twiction”), reflect the importance of technology in our everyday lives.  The shortness of these forms means that they are very suitable for reading during a quick break on a mobile phone screen. Arguably, this makes poetry more mainstream and less elitist – it is more accessible as it is easier to read: it is shorter, uses simple words and is sometimes accompanied by visuals.  But also, when shared on social media, it has the potential to reach a wider socio-economic audience than the poetry-buying public.  Instapoetry readers are able to interact directly with the writer and with each other, in a more democratic process.  It is no wonder then that a renewed popular interest for poetry has risen out of such social media writing.

The rawness of Instapoetry – some Instapoets claim they only post unedited texts – says something about our fascination with the instantaneous in a time when we are constantly connected with events taking place all over the world. Publishing on Twitter especially can be likened to speaking out: once something has been said, it is already gone and replaced by more recent tweets. Of course, you can scroll down these platforms and maybe you will eventually find what you are looking for. But the book form undeniably has a sense of long-term duration and inalterability to it.

In fact, much of the conversation/hype around Twiction and Instapoetry took place between 2013 and 2015, and many tweets and Instagram posts have probably been deleted since. Unfortunately, thus far, we hold no records of this in the UK web archive, and there are no entries for “instapoetry” and “twiction”, however you may be able to find and even nominate accounts of authors for inclusion.  The American internet archive (known as the Wayback Machine has a very limited number of entries for these terms, however you can find captures of social media accounts using this.

As a result, the BL collections are also missing the Twitter fictional initiatives taken by acclaimed Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole  between 2011 and 2014.

Teju Cole
Teju Cole, wikimedia commons

In January 2014, he orchestrated a short story entitled “Hafiz” about a man who has a heart attack in a big city (you can read the whole story here). Cole texted other Twitter users 36 ready-made sentences to tweet, which he then retweeted in the right narrative order.  

Earlier, he had already experimented on the same platform with his “Small Fates” project in which he imitated crime reports found in Nigerian newspapers, giving them an ironic twist. One goes “Ude, of Ikata, recently lost his wife. Tired of arguing with her, he used a machete”. Cole’s twitter page has been inactive since 2014, and shows nothing predating June 14th, 2014 (yes, I scrolled down to see how far I could go). This points to the ephemerality of such literary movements and how quickly they spring up and disappear. How then can our collections keep up if they are not equipped to collect these moments?

The fact that Teju Cole was already a well-recognized and published writer when he conducted these literary experiments shows that for many authors, social media is an interesting alternative to print. Rather than choosing social media only for its marketing value or its artistic value (as the space constraints encourage a different kind of creativity), for these authors part of the attraction is political. The online space is more flexible and democratic than the publishing industry. As minority writers, moving outside of mainstream distribution channels and privileging social media is potentially more radical and powerful than seeking publication.

This, however, also makes it harder for libraries to keep a record. Some writers such as the ones I have mentioned have received their fair share of attention in the media, so although web archives encounter practical challenges to collecting these primary resources, they are certainly picking up on secondary material discussing it. In this sense it is worth reflecting on strategies to ensure the Library’s web-archiving collecting practices remain diverse in form and content, and don't involuntarily under-represent a crucial literary moment to future generations.  One such tool is user input: the UK web archive allows users and authors to nominate sites to be added to its collections. It is a simple process, and can make a vital difference to ensuring these forms of writing aren't lost to future generations.

- Laura Gallon


UK Web Archive:

The Wayback Machine (the Internet Archive):

Leetaru, Kalev. “Why Are Libraries Failing At Web Archiving And Are We Losing Our Digital History?”. Forbes, 27/05/2017. 

Qureshi, Huma. « How do I love thee? Let me Instagram it.” The Guardian, 23/11/2015.

Roberts, Soraya. “No Filter.” The Baffler, 24/01/2018.

Rupi Kaur Official Website

Walker, Rob. “The young ‘Instapoet’ Rupi Kaur: from social media star to bestselling writer.” The Guardian, 28/05/2017.

Zakaria, Rafia. “Warsan Shire: the Somali-British poet quoted by Beyoncé in Lemonade.” The Guardian, 27/04/2016. 


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.


30 August 2018

Eric Fisher Wood: An American in Paris

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Before Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron immortalised Gershwin’s production, there was another young American in Paris. When Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on 28 July 1914, Eric Fisher Wood, a young American student, was ‘quietly studying architecture at the École des Beaux-Arts’ (foreword, v). The journal he kept at the outbreak of war describes the capital’s rapid descent into near chaos and his quick assumption of responsibilities as attaché at the American Embassy then headed by Myron T. Herrick . His account is fascinating for its candid and sympathetic description of the sudden and complete upheaval for Parisians, his fellow Americans and for the German citizens who, mostly by chance, had the magnificent misfortune of being on French soil when war was declared.

Image 1. Cover
IMG 1. Caption: Eric Fisher Wood, The Note-Book of an Attaché, seven months in the war zone, 1915. 9082.ff.28.

As part of a PhD research placement, I have been working on a collection of French posters from the First World War and reading Fisher Wood’s account in tandem. The correspondence between his description of the period and the story told through the primary material in the poster collection is striking. On 2 August 1914, a poster was issued by the Police department prohibiting people from gathering (attroupement) in the streets.

Image 2. Attroupement
IMG 2. Caption: Poster prohibiting gathering and seditious proclamations and songs in public under the state of siege. Tab.11748.a.F1(5)

In his entry for Tuesday 4 August, Fisher Wood writes ‘One sees everywhere on the sidewalk little knots of people talking in low, troubled voices, and each time just as their conversation is well started they are interrupted by a policeman who reminds them that it is not permitted to s’attrouper in the streets and that they must move on.’ (13) Similarly, in relation to restrictions on opening hours for bars, cafés and the métro, he writes, ‘The Champs-Elysées is probably at present the darkest avenue on earth. (…) The sun seldom rises without revealing the ruins of one of these lamps and of an automobile, the two having mutually destroyed each other in the darkness.’ (37-38). Illustrating this, poster no 15 in the collection gives us the material evidence of these new regulations being implemented, plunging the City of Light into darkness.

Image 3. Curfew
Government poster ordering all establishments selling alcoholic drinks to close by 8pm. Metro stations are to close at the same time. Tab.11748.a.F1(15)

Reading Fisher Wood’s chronicle, we get a sense of just how much daily life and business was completely overturned. He says that all buses vanished from the city to be turned into ambulances and meat wagons, causing scenes of despair and panic for the hordes trying to flee the capital. All kinds of private property, including horses, carriages, mules and even carrier pigeons, were requisitioned by the army to support the war effort, and we have the artefacts of the announcements in the collection.

Image 4. Requisitions
Government poster calling for all heavy vehicles and cars that haven't already been requisitioned to be presented to the Commission of Requisition on 4 and 5 August 1914. Tab.11748.a.F1(10)

Alongside, Fisher Wood’s journal provides an additional layer describing how these requisitions manifested themselves in daily life: ‘All the fast private automobiles are requisitioned for the army, and one sees them tearing along vying in speed with the flying taxis, each one driven by a sapper with another sapper in the footman’s place, while one or two officers sit calmly behind, trying to smoke cigarettes in spite of the wind.’ (14)

During the War, posters constituted one of the principal channels through which information was disseminated to the public, which is perhaps difficult to imagine in our era of instant news feeds and instantaneous information sharing. Fisher Wood notes the ambient confusion and uncertainty that pervaded the population: ‘There are persistent rumours throughout Paris of battles “near Metz” or “on the borders of Luxembourg,” of “two hundred and thirty thousand French troops already in Alsace”, “ten thousand French killed at Belfort,” or “forty thousand German prisoners taken.” (14) In this atmosphere of insecurity, one can imagine just how important these posters were in keeping a fraught population informed of the war’s developments and of the steady stream of government pronouncements.

Image 5. Roger Viollet
Parisians huddled around a mobilisation poster. August 1914. Préfecture de Police, Service de l’identité judiciaire/BHVP/RogerViollet.

Fisher Wood remarks too that when Général Gallieni, military governor of Paris, was handed power, he took advantage of the new authority to usher through changes that had been hindered by ‘politics’ for years. The scourge of absinthe was suddenly outlawed as were slot machines, designed to ‘catch the hard-earned-sous of the workmen’. (39)

Image 6. Absinthe
Poster issued by the Préfecture de police announcing the decree of 7 January 1915 prohibiting the sale of absinthe and similar spirits. Signed by Prime Minister Raymond Poincaré. Tab.11748.a.F1(36)
Image 7.
Government poster detailing two articles of the law prohibiting slot and gaming machines issuing cash winnings or drinking tokens. Tab.11748.a.F1(22)

Eric Fisher Wood went on to serve in the British then American Armies, parts of which he recounts in the latter part of his ‘Note-book’. Following the war he returned to the United States and played an instrumental role in setting up what became the American Legion and later established himself as an architect. However the vivid, first-hand account of the experiences of this particular American, in Paris and beyond, especially when read alongside the primary resources of the posters, remains a powerful account of the civilian – and foreign – experience of the turbulent first months of war from the French capital.

- Phoebe Weston-Evans



[A collection of British and French War Posters.] 1914-1919. Tab.11748.a.

Eric Fisher Wood, The Note-Book of an Attaché: Seven Months in the War Zone (New York, 1915). 9082.ff.28.

Charles Lansiaux, Paris 14-18: la guerre au quotidien. Photographies de Charles Lanciaux (Paris, 2013). LF.31.a.5681.

Christine Vial Kayser and Géraldine Chopin (eds) Allons enfants! Publicité et propagande 1914­–1918 (Louveciennes, 2014). YF.2017.a.11967.

Phoebe Weston-Evans is a PhD placement student at the British Library where she is working on a project cataloguing a collection of French War Posters.  She is in the second year of her PhD at the University of Melbourne which looks at the author Patrick Modiano.  Phoebe is also a published translator.