THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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14 posts categorized "Humanities"

03 April 2019

América Latina: Artists’ Books at the British Library

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In early February the British Library held its third hugely successful Artists’ Books Now event: América Latina. The evening brought together artists, collectors, academics and curators to consider the multiple dynamics at work in the creation of Latin American artists’ books. It also enabled the audience to handle and explore the works on display and to discuss them with the contributors and each other.

Jerry - group shot

Artists, curators and members of the audience engaging with the artists' books. Image: Jerry Jenkins.

Amongst the items considered were cordel literature and cartonera, both of which are richly represented in the Library’s collections. Cordel literature are popular and inexpensively printed booklets or pamphlets containing folk novels, poems and songs which often have decorative covers printed from woodcuts.

Jerry book

Brazilian woodcut prints illustrating cordel publications from Connie Bloomfield’s collection.  Image: Jerry Jenkins.

Cartonera is a publishing movement which originated in Latin America in the early 2000s and which employs recycled material to make literary works. Historically these works have social, political and artistic significance. The British Library holds cartonera from Argentina, Uruguay, Peru, and Mexico. Beth Cooper, Curator for Latin America and Caribbean collections, has been working with Lucy Bell and Alex Flynn on an AHRC funded cartonera research project ‘Precarious Publishing in Latin America: relations, meanings and community in movement'.

The Library also holds works from Ediciones Vigía, an independent publishing house located in Matanzas, Cuba. Vigía originally opened as a space for writers and artists to gather and discuss their work. Participants began creating single-sheet flyers that advertised meeting times for interested artists, and eventually they evolved into a book publishing house. Many of their works are produced in coarse paper from substances including sugar cane, offcuts of cardboard and other leftovers. They are decorated with drawings, cut by hand and enhanced with material objects: scraps of tissue paper, cloth, cord, as well as less likely ornaments including sand, twigs, leaves and nails. The maximum number of any work produced by the house is two hundred. Clearly there is an intersection with the cartonera, although the roots of each movement are differentiated by time, with Vigías being a backlash to the uniformity of Cuban printing and publishing of the 1980s.  

Jerry woman speaker

Artist Francisca Prieto discussing her work The Antibook [British Library shelfmark: RF.2003.a.233]

América Latina offered a wonderful opportunity to explore and unpick the ways in which  artists’ books can be seen as a transnational and international medium which does not respect boundaries or borders.

Huge thanks are due to all of the contributors: Michael Wellen, Curator, International Art, Tate Modern; researchers and collectors Lucy Bell and Connie Bloomfield; artist book and zine maker Rafael Morales Cendejas; visual artist Francisca Prieto; and Beth Cooper, Curator, Latin America and the Caribbean, The British Library.

Jerry Jenkins, Curator Contemporary British Publications, Emerging Media

 

01 February 2019

The Federal Theatre Project's 'Living Newspapers'

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Last month we celebrated the life of Hallie Flanagan, director of the ground-breaking Federal Theatre Project (1935-39). This blog will look at one of the Federal Theatre’s most innovative and controversial accomplishments: the ‘Living Newspapers’. It will also share our realisation concerning the connection between Hallie Flanagan and Mary Eccles, co-founder of the British Library’s Eccles Centre for American Studies.

Flanagan first encountered living newspapers – in which social and political issues were given theatrical form – while visiting the Soviet Union in 1926. Such productions had emerged during the Russian Civil War as a means of promoting a pro-Soviet version of the news to the largely illiterate Red Army troops. Following the Bolshevik victory, this agitprop art form continued developing and expanding. In 1923 the hugely influential collective 'Blue Blouse' was founded under the auspices of the Moscow School of Journalism. By 1928 more than 7,000 Blue Blouse troupes had been established across the nation. Performances typically opened with a parade of ‘headlines’, followed by a dozen or so humorous or satirical  sketches on topics as diverse as trouble in a local factory to religion and international relations. Siniaia Bluza (Moscow, 1924-28; shelfmark ZA.9.d.615) - the irregularly published Blue Blouse periodical - supported these performances, containing suggestions for staging, sets and costumes as well as librettos for skits.  

Blue Blouse 1927

Siniaia Bluza, 71-72 (1927): 32. Moscow, 1924-28. Shelfmark: ZA.9.d.615

Flanagan attended several Blue Blouse productions in Moscow. In Shifting Scenes of the Modern European Theatre (London, 1929; shelfmark 011805.i.61) she notes: 'At Trade Union or Factory theatres, the Blue Blouses, workers by day and actors by night, perform original acrobatic plays'. She particularly recalls attending a production in which ‘three men and three girls glorify workers of the Army, the Navy, the farms, and factories’. [1] Rejecting elaborate props and sets, the actors energetically climbed imaginary rigging, planted imaginary crops and controlled imaginary machinery: 'Each motif reached its climax in a refrain taken up by the audience, a refrain consisting of the repetition of a single word, Comrade – half sung, half shouted: Tovarish! Tovarish! Tovarish! The effect of this exuberance was an amazing impression of having seen, not three men and three girls in an amateur song and dance, but a forest of ships with sailors in the rigging, a battalion of soldiers, a commonwealth of farm and factory hands all linked in a comradeship of work.' [2]

A decade later, in one of her earliest conversations with WPA director, Harry Hopkins, Flanagan suggested the Federal Theatre could produce a series of living newspapers involving many people taking on small parts. Hopkins immediately concurred and the Federal Theatre's principle Living Newspaper Unit was established in New York City soon after. Headed by playwright Elmer Rice – who, like Flanagan, had visited the Soviet Union – the Unit included theatre professionals and out-of-work journalists. From the outset it attracted controversy. Its first production – Ethiopia, about the recent invasion by Mussolini – was issued with a federal censorship order, prompting Rice’s resignation. And its third – Injunction Granted, with its pro-union/anti-big business stance – was criticised by federal government officials and closed early. Several living newspapers were hugely successful, however; most notably, One-Third of a Nation.

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Poster for One-Third of a Nation at the Aldelphi Theatre, New York City, 1938. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Inspired by President Roosevelt's second inaugural address in which he recognised that one third of the nation were ‘ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished’, the play dramatized the living conditions – the crime, disease, and powerlessness – endured by those in urban slum tenements. It also offered some solutions. After being workshopped at Vassar under Flanagan's direction in the summer of 1937, it was staged in cities across the United States, with revisions reflecting local conditions. In Philadelphia, for example, reference was made to a city tenement house that had collapsed two days before opening night.

Everywhere, reviews of One-Third of a Nation were positive. The Detroit Tribune declared it to be: ‘… of vital interest to every Negro living in Michigan’. The New Orleans Times-Picayune called it ‘timely and shrewdly staged’. In San Francisco it ran for nearly two years. And at New York’s Adelphi Theatre over 200,000 people cheered as the life-like slum housing went up in flames and the ‘The Consumer’ cried out to the government: ‘Can you hear me, Washington? Give me a decent home!’

One-Third-of-a-Nation-Set

Photo of the New York set of the Federal Theatre Project's One-Third of a Nation, 1938. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

And it seems that Washington did hear, but in both a positive and negative way. Eleanor Roosevelt believed One-Third of a Nation achieved more than any speeches by her, Langdon Post (Head of the New York City Housing Authority), or even her husband ever could. But numerous senators were offended that their views on housing – taken word-for-word from the Congressional Record – were included in the play.

Flanagan later reflected in Arena: The History of the Federal Theatre (New York: Benjamin Blom, 1965; shelfmark X.900/3282) that: ‘Enemies made by the living newspaper were, I believe, powerful enemies, instrumental in the final closing of the project.’ [3] Yet, she never regretted her decisions. And she never lost her conviction in the power of this art form. Indeed, in 1948 she co-wrote a new play - E = mc2: A Living Newspaper about the Atomic Age - boldly declaring in its foreword: ‘The theatrical effectiveness of the “living newspaper” was conclusively demonstrated in the productions of Power and One-Third of a Nation. This latest edition of the "living newspaper" compares most favorably with the previous ones.' (New York: Samuel French, 1948; shelfmark 011791.c.47) 

Atomic 2

Hallie Flanagan, E = mc2: A Living Newspaper about the Atomic Age.  New York: Samuel French, 1948. Shelfmak: 011791.c.47

Finally, we wanted to share our recent realisation that Mary Eccles – co-founder of the British Library’s Eccles Centre for American Studies – was a student at Vassar College at the very time that Hallie Flanagan established the Vassar Experimental Theatre. Colleagues at the Centre knew about Mary's doctoral  thesis, 'Playwriting for Elizabethans, 1600-1605'. We were also aware anecdotally of her interest in avant-garde theatre. Yet, we had never connected Mary with Flanagan. With hindsight, it seems inconceivable that Mary would not have worked with, and surely been influenced by, this extraordinary, ground-breaking woman. In this vein, we will conclude with this wonderful, scandalous newspaper clipping about Mary (née Crapo) breaking conventions and enjoying a 'healthy drag' on a cigarette during her college years! 

Mary Crapo smoking

References:

[1]. Hallie Flanagan, Shifting Scenes of the Modern European Theatre. London: George G Harrap & Co., 1929, p. 108. Shelfmark: 011805.i.61.

[2]. ibid., p. 109.

[3]. Hallie Flanagan, Arena: The History of the Federal Theatre. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1965, p. 221. Shelfmark: X.900/3282.

Jean Petrovic, Eccles Centre for American Studies

06 December 2018

Hallie Flanagan and the House Committee on Un-American Activities

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Today marks 80 years since Hallie Flanagan – national director of the Federal Theatre Project – appeared before the House Special Committee on Un-American Activities to answer questions about the New Deal programme she had been leading since its inception.

In her now legendary testimony, Flanagan’s allusion to Elizabethan playwright, Christopher Marlowe – and Congressman Starnes’s rejoinder: ‘Is he a communist?’ – left the room rocking with laughter. Yet, Flanagan herself did not laugh, recognising as she did that: ‘Eight thousand people might lose their jobs because a Congressional Committee had so pre-judged us that even the classics were “communistic”’. [1]

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Hallie Flanagan speaking on CBS Radio, 1 January 1936. The Federal Theatre of the Air, under the auspices of the Federal Theatre Project, began weekly programmes on 15 March 1936. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Flanagan had been head-hunted for the Federal Theatre in 1935 by Harry Hopkins, director of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Until this point, federal relief during the Great Depression was primarily directed at manual labourers. The Federal Theatre – along with similar projects for writers, artists and musicians – was a game changer, providing federally-funded employment to skilled workers: in this case, playwrights, directors, actors, stage-hands, set-designers and costumiers.

From the outset Flanagan’s stewardship of the Federal Theatre was visionary and far-reaching. This should not have been surprising. In 1926 Flanagan became the first woman to be awarded a Guggenheim fellowship and for 14 months she had travelled throughout Europe studying new theatre. Her meetings with Konstantin Slanislavki and Vsevolod Meyerhold had illuminated radical new ways of working and in Shifting Scenes of the Modern European Theatre (London: George G Harrap & Co., 1929; shelfmark 011805.i.61) Flanagan asserts that Russia, with its workers theatres and innovative methodologies, had the most vital theatre in the world.

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Members of Meyerhold’s Theatre-Studio on Povarskaya Street (affiliated to Moscow Art Theatre). Meyerhold is back row, second left. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

After returning to Vassar College in upstate New York, Flanagan established the Vassar Experimental Theatre and soon gained a national reputation for ground-breaking productions. Notable among these was Can You Hear Their Voices? her co-adaptation of a story published in New Masses by then-communist Whittaker Chambers in which the effects of the devastating drought in Arkansas are seen through the eyes of struggling farmers and their affluent Congressman.  

With a job that she loved, a husband, a child and three step-children it is hardly surprising that Flanagan initially resisted Hopkins’ offer of a job in Washington, DC. But after several months, and with the full support of her husband, she accepted. In October 1935 – doubtless reflecting Flanagan’s passionate belief in the transformative power of theatre – the Project boldly declared that: ‘Its far reaching purpose is the establishment of theatres so vital to community life that they will continue to function after the program of the Federal Project is completed.’ [2]

A subsequent blog will explore the Federal Theatre’s accomplishments more fully. Suffice it to say here that nothing like it has been seen in the United States before or since. In its first three years, thousands of workers created 55,000 performances of more than 900 shows in front of 26 million people, many of whom attended at no cost or for less than one dollar.

Faustus-FTP-Poster

Poster for Christopher Marlowe’s Faustus. W.P.A. Federal Theatre. 8 January – 9 May 1937. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Yet, the purportedly ‘radical’ nature of the Theatre – together with Flanagan’s own background – held the seed of its undoing.

Flanagan was fully aware of the creation in May 1938 of the House Special Committee on Un-American Activities. Part of the committee’s brief – under its chair, Martin Dies – was investigating organisations suspected of having communist ties. Looking back at this time, Flanagan notes in Arena: The History of the Federal Theatre (New York: Benjamin Blom, 1965; shelfmark: X.900/3282) that while many people within the WPA laughed about the Dies Committee, to Flanagan herself ‘it never seemed funny’. [3]

And with good reason.

In July 1938, a Committee member declared the Federal Theatre to be a branch of the Communist Party, offering plays with communist leanings and limiting jobs to members of the Workers’ Alliance. Flanagan immediately issued a press release denying this and spent the next five months trying to appear before the Committee in order to set the record straight.

Finally, on the morning of 6 December she was called to testify. However, unlike Hazel Huffman – a disgruntled Federal Theatre mail clerk who believed herself qualified to denounce Flanagan for being ‘known as far back as 1927 for her communist sympathy, if not membership’ and who received ample time to air her views on the Theatre’s activities – Flanagan, the Theatre’s national director, was allocated just a few hours.

Yet, what a few hours they were. And this extraordinary testimony can be read in full online at the British Library using Congressional Hearings, Digital Collection, 1824-1979.

Within moments of taking the stand, Flanagan flummoxed the Chair with a declaration of her dedication to combating ‘un-American inactivity’:

Flanagan and Chair dialoge excerpt

Desperate to re-gain control, the Congressmen quizzed Flanagan on her trips to Russia, her communist sympathies, her belief in theatre as ‘a weapon’, the Federal Theatre’s productions, its workforce, their ties to the Workers’ Alliance and more. For much of the time, Flanagan remained on the front foot. And when she asked if she could return after the recess for lunch, Congressman Thomas replied: ‘We don’t want you back; you’re a tough witness and we’re all worn out.’ [4]

Yet in spite of Flanagan’s best efforts, the national mood was changing. A recent Gallup poll had shown that more than half of all voters were aware of the Committee hearings, and of those, 75% wanted the investigations to continue. [5]

On 3 January 1938 the Committee concluded that: ‘A rather large number of the employees on the Federal Theatre Project are either members of the Communist party or a sympathetic with the Communist Party’. [6]  And five months later, on 30 June 1939, an Act of Congress denied the Federal Theatre Project further funding thereby bringing an end to an unprecedented national experiment and ‘the creative energy that it so miraculously generated’. [7]

To be continued…

Footnotes: 

1. Hallie Flanagan. Arena: The History of the Federal Theatre. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1965. Shelfmark: X.900/3282.

2. Manual for Federal Theatre Projects of the Works Progress Administration. October 1935. https://www.loc.gov/item/farbf.00010003/ accessed 5/12/2018.

3. Flanagan, Arena. p. 335.

4. ibid., p. 346.

5. Joanne Bentley, Hallie Flanagan: A Life in the American Theatre. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1988, p. 326.

6. Flanagan, p. 347

7. John Houseman, quoted in John O’Connor. The Federal Theatre Project: ‘Free, Adult, Uncensored’. London: Eyre Methuen, 1980, p. x. Shelfmark: 81/13870.

Further Reading:

Joanne Bentley, Hallie Flanagan: A Life in the American Theatre. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1988. Shelfmark: 88/22242

 

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).

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

 

23 May 2018

Indigenous Australian Comic Characters in the British Library

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IMG_6809
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.

18 December 2017

Early American Science: Benjamin Rush

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As described in my previous blog Early American Science: Benjamin Franklin, scientific investigation was a central part of eighteenth century philosophical enquiry. A desire to understand the detailed workings of the natural world was not seen to be antithetical to the idea of God the creator, but rather a means of studying and thereby celebrating the infinite variety of his creation. Indeed, far from there being a psychological or theological block on scientific enquiry, it had been institutionally and culturally encouraged since the late 17th century, becoming not only acceptable but also fashionable.

The basic ground rules of this spirit of enquiry are encapsulated in the title of Benjamin Franklin’s ground-breaking work Experiments and Observations on Electricity (London, 1751; shelfmark: 538.l.5.(6)) just as they are in Medical Inquiries and Observations (4 Vols., Philadelphia, 1805; shelfmark MFR/3019 1 Reel 36:1), the most important writings of Franklin’s friend and fellow Philadelphian, Benjamin Rush (1746-1813).

 Benjamin_Rush

Benjamin Rush: an engraving by James Barton Longacre (1794-1869) from a painting by Thomas Sully (1783-1872). Courtesy Wikipedia.

Like Franklin, Benjamin Rush was a practical empiricist. He became the first professor of chemistry in America (at the age of twenty-two), was the United States’ most eminent contemporary physician, and is still regarded as the father of American psychiatry. And just as many contemporary politicians on both sides of the Atlantic are attempting to unify health and social care, so Rush – himself a politician and a signatory of the Declaration of Independence – saw no divide. He firmly believed that both physical and mental health were intrinsically affected by social conditions and mores, and was a keen advocate of government intervention on a considered basis, akin to the modern practice of nudge theory.

A glance at works written by Rush and listed in Early American Science: A Selective Guide to Materials at the British Library  illustrates both the breadth of his interests and the continuing importance of his areas of concern. These include: ‘An account of the state of the body and mind in old age’ in Sir J. Bart Sinclair, The Code of Health etc., Vol. 4 (Edinburgh, 1807; shelfmark 41.d.18); Medical Enquiries and Observations upon the Diseases of the Mind (2nd edition, London, 1789; shelfmark 1039.k.31); An Inquiry into the Influence of Physical Causes upon the Moral Faculty (Philadelphia, 1839; shelfmark 8404.e.33.(2)); A Dissertation on the Spasmodic Asthma of Children (London, 1770; shelfmark T.991.(2)); and An Inquiry into the Effects of Ardent Spirits upon the Human Body and Mind (Boston, 1812; shelfmark 1507/278).      

Rush was a man of strong opinions and could sometimes be fractious. He certainly did not lack either physical or moral courage. As surgeon general of the army he fought alongside General Washington at the Battle of Princeton, but was later sacked for ‘disloyalty’ after he sought to bypass Washington while attempting to reform the administration of the army’s hospitals.

Rush battle

In this painting by John Trumbull - The Death of General Mercer at the Battle of Princeton, January 3, 1777 - Benjamin Rush can be seen behind George Washington; both are on horseback. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Even more famously, Rush stayed in Philadelphia to treat the sick (including himself) throughout the 1793 yellow fever epidemic that killed one in ten of the city’s population. Indeed, Rush was uniquely influential in the development of medicine in the early years of the Republic. In 1792 he became the first Professor in the Institutes of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. In the following two decades he taught an estimated 3,500 students. His Sixteen Introductory Lectures (shelfmark: X.329/1803) influenced many more after his death and has been republished three times during the past half century. [1]

A humanitarian, Rush was an active campaigner for penal reform and a lifelong opponent of slavery. His 1773 Address to the Inhabitants of the British Settlements on the Slavery of Negroes in America (shelfmark MFR/3017 *1* Reel 140:14 140:13) led the next year to the creation of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, the first such institution in America. [2]

Benjamin Rush, like Benjamin Franklin, is buried in the Christ Church Burial Ground, Philadelphia.

George Goodwin

George is an Eccles Centre Makin Fellow at the British Library and author of Benjamin Franklin in London: The British Life of America's Founding Father. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2016. (Shelfmark: YD.2016.a.3841).

Notes

1.  Benjamin Rush, Sixteen Introductory Lectures. Oceanside, N.Y: Dabor Science Publications, 1977. Repr. of the 1811 edition published by Bradford and Innskeep, Philadelphia. (Shelfmark: X.329/18023)

2.  Benjamin Rush, Address to the Inhabitants of the British Settlements on the Slavery of Negroes in America by Benjamin Rush. Philadelphia: J. Dunlap, 1773. (Shelfmark: MFR/3017 *1* Reel 140:14 140:13)

Further Reading 

Claire G. Fox, Gordon L. Miller and Jacqueline C. Miller, comps. Benjamin Rush, M.D.: A Bibliographic Guide. Westport, Conn.; London: Greenwood Press, 1996. Shelfmark: 2725.e.3276.

Lyman Butterfield, ed. Letters of Benjamin Rush (2 vols). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1951. Shelfmark: 5577.100000 30(1).

Carl Binger, Revolutionary Doctor: Benjamin Rush, 1746-1813, New York: W.W. Norton, 1966. Shelfmark: 5577.100000 30(1).