Oxplore Book Club started in March 2021. Since then we have published new resources on a range of different texts. Keep scrolling to rediscover some of our favourite bits of Book Club, and click here to find our supporting worksheets.
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The journey to finding yourself
Written by C. S. Bhagya
Through their poetry, Moniza Alvi, Caleb Femi, and Mary Jean Chan share their experiences of growing up in Britain. While they each draw from different cultural heritages—Pakistani, Nigerian, and Chinese respectively—their poetry speaks of the variety of identities that make up the UK. They each skillfully present how difficult it is to think of belonging and identity in just one way.
The Sari by Moniza Alvia
Alvi’s poem, 'The Sari' demonstrates the uncertainty of identity that has marked her own personal experience. Namely, growing up in a part of England, which “didn’t seem very multi-cultural in the nineteen fifties and sixties". (source)
In this poem, she fantasises about what it might have been like to be raised in Pakistan. Something that stands out is the contrast (juxtaposition) between the number of different people in the Pakistani context and the sole English grandmother who takes a telescope to gaze “across continents” (i.e. Europe and Asia). The distance between the two continents is showcased here as a difference of community. The sense of being surrounded by a community of close ones seems emphasised in the Pakistani context. However, this sense is challenged in the next stanza where a connection is established between Lahore, Hyderabad, “across the Arabian Sea,” and seemingly also to Britain from where her English grandmother peers.
Image credit: Baljit Johal via Pexels.
The sari becomes a motif (reoccurring idea or symbol) of cross-cultural connection. Helped by its flowing and flexible shape, it becomes a metaphor for Alvi’s ever-changing self which finds itself fluttering between different cultures.
Alvi seems to imply in the poem’s final lines, that it’s possible for your identity to be rooted in your body rather than any specific part of the world: “Your body is your country”. Plus, it’s the love and understanding of Alvi’s family—her father, Grandmother etc —that allows her to think about herself both through her family and as an individual.
Caleb Femi’s poetry
The themes of travel and belonging to multiple places at once that we encounter in ‘The Sari’ are repeated in Caleb Femi’s poem, 'A Tale of Modern Britain', commissioned by Heathrow Airport. In a filmed version (see below), Femi performs the poem whilst video footage of people moving through the airport (arriving, departing, and greeting loved ones in intimate moments) plays. These actual journeys symbolised by travellers at the airport provide the substance of Femi’s ideas about how the self is made and unmade by movement. Femi describes the emotional impact of travelling: “You arrive at the end of the horizon/ standing at the tarmac mouth of home/ lighter if you left it all behind – heavier if you brought it all with you”.
The video demonstrates how different multimedia (visuals, music etc) can interact to bring a poetry performance to life. Femi’s poem also offers insightful commentary about the different identities that form “this marketplace of modern British culture.” He even includes some amusing references to a few stereotypes associated with British identity: “We’re not all about tea and crumpets – well some of us are.”
Similar to how the sari becomes a physical object that allows new ways to imagine the self and belonging in Alvi’s poem, the airport terminal performs the same function in Femi’s performance. Femi asks listeners to “Imagine a terminal as a portal to a new version of yourself,” showing how the airport becomes a place not just to mark physical journeys, but also a door to new worlds of the self.
The “runway tarmac of Heathrow airport” reappears in another poem about identity and familial belonging titled 'My Father’s Son' (see video above). The room where Femi waited to get a phone call from his father, who had left Nigeria and flown to London, smells of the airport to Femi. He describes his father’s voice as booming like the thunderstorms that disrupted playtime at school -- demonstrating the power of the voice in Femi’s consciousness at a very young age.
At the end of the poem, Femi imagines seeing himself in puddles and associates his self as an offshoot of his father. Here Femi is formed in his father’s image; or rather, he sees himself as giving shape to the power of his father’s voice.
Mary Jean Chan’s poetry
The theme of family also features in Mary Jean Chan’s work, where she repeatedly imagines her selfhood and identity through her relationship with her parents, particularly her mother. In the poem 'Names', Chan talks about the difficulty of talking about her queer identity and gaining acceptance from family. The challenges of maintaining tense relationships is highlighted further in the poem entitled: 'The mother finds her own wild, lost beginnings deep within the body of her daughter'*. The title of the poem and much of its imagery implies that the relationship between the mother and daughter in the poem shape each other. Their relationship is not always ideal, and often messy and painful.
This poem is highly intertextual as it draws on the work of the theorist and academic Jacqueline Rose and the Chinese-American poet Chen Chen. Chan’s poem is, in many ways, a response to a line from Chen Chen’s poem 'Poplar Street': “Sometimes, parents and children become the most common of strangers. Eventually, a street appears where they can meet again.” Through this line, and the motif of the street, Chan imagines the daughter in the poem reconnecting with her estranged parent through her “acumen for/ language.” Her poem is similar to Femi’s in thinking of the daughter as “born/ into the slip-/stream of your mother’s unconscious.” The image of the slipstream (a current of air behind a quickly moving object) helps to think about the mother as a person who has a lot of power to determine the kind of person the daughter will eventually become. The daughter benefits from the possibilities generated by the mother’s personality and life, but at the same time, can be a stranger to the older generation’s thinking and habits. In this context, the street, like the terminal in Femi’s poem, and the sari in Alvi’s, becomes a symbol of hope. Chan notes: “I wrote/ to find/ the street/ where we/ might meet/ again.”
This brief analysis of these three poets’ work highlights questions about how family relationships and intergenerational similarities and differences can take centre-stage in poetic form. The poets frequently use the imagery of travelling and streets to think about how the journey to understanding yourself is not an easy one. In their poems, they trace how it is frequently marked by difficulties, uncertainty, interruptions and pain, as much as by joy.
*This poem was published with the Academy of American Poets as part of the "Poem-a-Day" series.
C. S. Bhagya is a DPhil candidate in English at Merton College, University of Oxford. She has MA and MPhil degrees in English from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Her doctoral dissertation is on “Tropes of Exception: Representations of the Emergency in Indian Writings in English.” Her academic writing has appeared in the Journal of Postcolonial Writing, Oxford Research in English, Queen’s Political Review, and the open educational resource hub Writers Make Worlds.
What is performance poetry?
Oxford student and poet, Hannah Ledlie shares what performance poetry means to her. She also gives her take on a long-standing debate in poetry known as 'stage versus page'.
Let's delve back into the worlds of science-fiction and dystopian literature...
Let's delve back into the worlds of science-fiction and dystopian literature...
Science-fiction: where did it begin and what does the future hold?
One of the Book Club's recommended reads was 'The New World’ by Patrick Ness, which follows Viola as she undertakes a thrilling journey to a new planet. To help us understand more of the context surrounding science fiction stories, we spoke to Chelsea Haith (University of Oxford) whose research focuses on sci-fi and speculative fiction.
When did science fiction begin?
According to Chelsea, this is a complex question, and the answer depends on how we define science fiction. If we include utopian fiction (stories which imagine ideal worlds) within the genre, then you could argue that science fiction began centuries ago. Thomas More’s 'Utopia' – the first utopian novel – was written way back in 1516.
But science fiction as we think of it today (advanced technology! space exploration! aliens!) is a more recent occurrence. It’s difficult to pinpoint a single example of the first traditional science fiction story, but Chelsea points to 'Frankenstein' by Mary Shelley (1818) and the 'Time Machine' by H. G. Wells (1895) as important early works.
The popularisation of science fiction
Chelsea explains that many people believe science fiction was first popularised by a man called Hugo Gernsback, who ran the magazines, ‘Amazing Stories’ and 'Wonder Stories', in the 1920s and 30s.
Image credit: Frank R. Paul / Experimenter Publishing via Wikipedia. Public Domain.
‘Gernsback considered the work that he was published ‘science fictional’, and the idea was that his stories contained an element of science taken to the extreme.’
The genre grew in popularity in the decades that followed with John W Campbell (editor of the magazine 'Astounding Stories') seen as another influential figure in this movement.
In the 1960s and 70s, a noticeable difference emerged between American and British science fiction. ‘In the States, there was quite a lot of positive science fiction, which saw future technological developments in a very positive light. There was the idea that they would bring peace and prosperity whereas British science fiction was quite pessimistic (believing the worst will happen)!’
Is science fiction always political?
Science fiction allows us to imagine amazing (utopian) futures. But it also gives us a chance to explore alternative systems of government and consider the dangers of authoritarianism (very controlling systems of power). Stories describing imagined communities or societies which are dehumanizing, undesirable and frightening form part of what's known as dystopian fiction.
Some science fiction theorists, such as Darko Suvin, believe that all science fiction is part of a broader political project. Others, such as Samuel R. Delany, believe in ‘art for art’s sake’, and think that science fiction is valuable in its own right.
Do you think all science fiction is political?
When learning about science fiction, you may have also come across the term ‘speculative fiction’. What is it, and where does it come from?
‘Speculative worlds are worlds that we recognise but are different in one or two particular ways. The term works quite nicely as it also includes fantasy.’
Chelsea explains that the term is relatively new, and it became popularised after a public disagreement between two science fiction writers. In 2003, Margaret Atwood (pictured below) distanced herself from sci-fi, explaining that she preferred to describe her work as ‘speculative fiction'.
Image credit: Mark Hill Photography via Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0
‘This statement caused an uproar in fan and writing communities. Author, Ursula Le Guin then reviewed one of Atwood’s books and said that she was trying to avoid being ‘shoved into the literary ghetto by the literary bigots.’ Le Guin’s position was that Atwood was trying to make her work stay viable (successful) in the literary marketplace.’
In other words, some people believe that ‘speculative fiction’ is a term used by writers who want to make their work appear more serious. As Chelsea says, ‘the term speculative fiction tries to rehabilitate the genre.’ Meanwhile, some think it is a useful term because it is more inclusive of fantasy works.
The decline in serialised science fiction
Towards the turn of the century, magazines and serialised science fiction declined in popularity.
‘We don’t tend to read magazines for fiction anymore, but for the longest time, that was how you got stories. Nowadays, there are some magazines which do relatively well, but they are largely read by fans and contributors. They’re less considered popular reading. And so science fiction has suffered quite badly, I think, from that origin story of being popular rather than highbrow.’
Do science fiction writers use real science in their work?
In order to build believable worlds and plots, science fiction writers often make use of existing real-world science. Chelsea explains that award-winning sci-fi writer Ken Liu often explores alternative energy in his stories.
‘He actually built the machines to see if they would work. He also developed some of the code which he then writes about in his books.’
Sometimes though, science fiction deals with topics so fantastical that we cannot say whether or not they are possible.
‘And that’s one of those moments when you start thinking what is genre and why does it matter and why are we pigeon-holing texts?’ says Chelsea. ‘Which is where speculative fiction becomes a useful term.’
Have imaginary inventions or predictions from science fiction ever come true?
The short answer is yes!
‘A great example is The Time Machine by H. G. Wells. Published in 1895, the main character has a dinner party and presents this mad idea to his guests. He’s like, ‘we work on the three-dimensional plane, and there’s a fourth dimension: time.’ That was ten years before Albert Einstein comes up with his theory of relativity. That’s a clear example of literature preceding science. More recently, if you watch Star Trek, you can see they’ve got big tablets, so that’s like the forerunner to the iPad!’
Science fiction in the future
Recently, there have been lots of advancements in technology and space exploration. In March 2021, NASA’s Perseverance Rover landed on Mars. Meanwhile, Elon Musk’s company SpaceX hopes to take humans to the planet by 2026.
It will be interesting to see how these developments in real-world science influence science fiction. Will they lead to more dystopian or more utopian stories?
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS. Public Domain.
‘There is a lot of pessimism in science fiction about future slave communities. Almost all science fiction imagines that we’re going to enslave someone. Ourselves, aliens, AI robots… someone’s going to have a bad time. But the way the upper classes will live is also always imagined as being utopian.’
Why does science fiction continue to be a popular genre?
Science fiction stories allow us to think about how our lives might change, and what potential threats we might face.
‘What it all comes down to, is science fiction stories are often fun, they appeal to a sense of adventure, and they allow for an exploration of socio-political problems. What a genre, to be able to deal with all of those things at once and package them in a way that really engages your imagination!’
Science fiction inspires the future of science
From Mary Shelley’s 'Frankenstein' to Star Wars, find out how sci-fi creations have inspired real-world inventions in this video by The National Geographic.
Patrick Ness wrote 'The New World' (2009) as a prequel to the three novels of his 'Chaos Walking' series (2008-10). Although designed to introduce the main setting of the trilogy, 'The New World” is a perfect standalone tale. Patrick Ness uses icons and motifs characteristic of science fiction to frame a coming-of-age story, exploring themes such as separation, family, responsibility, and growing up.
The story traces a moment of radical change in the life of a young girl called Viola. Viola has lived her whole life on a spaceship. She and her family are chosen to lead the first scouting mission to the supposedly deserted planet where her community hopes to settle. The narrative moves continuously between past and present, alternating between snippets from Viola’s life on the spaceship and the tale of her five-months-long voyage to New World. This and the use of the first person ('I') helps make the story both exciting and personal -- encouraging readers to identify with Viola and empathise with her feelings.
Fear and other emotions
Viola’s relationship with her parents is one of the main focal points of the text. In particular, Viola feels bitter about having to leave her home and her friends behind to follow her parents on their mission. She also shows resentment towards them for having being chosen:
“Why do I have to pay for what they’re good at?”
During their long trip to the New World, Viola struggles to communicate with her parents. Her mother’s practical nature and her father’s optimism only seem to worsen her unhappiness. Although it's difficult for her to admit it (even to herself), Viola feels frightened and disheartened, and she doesn’t know how to manage these feelings. It's remarkable that in such a short story, Viola is asked the same question twice, once by her teacher Bradley, and once by her father:
“What are you really frightened of, Viola?”
We get the feeling that the mission forces Viola to face an emotion she had never known during her sheltered and comfortable life on the spaceship, namely, the fear of the future and unfamiliar. Is it possible, then, that Viola’s anger and resentment come from this anxiety? Does the experience of being uprooted from everything she has ever known cause Viola to lose sight of her identity and control over her emotions? But then again, isn’t this feeling all part of the usual experience of growing up?
A light to see in the dark
Building on the above, one of the possible interpretations for 'The New World' is that Viola’s journey into the unknown signifies the end of her childhood. This is also symbolised by the fact that Viola celebrates a birthday (her thirteenth) while en route to the New World. But the story extends this metaphor further in its thought-provoking commentary about the roles played by personal choice, and the legacy we receive from family and community i.e. the beliefs, values, and attitudes that are passed on from generation to generation.
Before her departure, Viola receives a birthday gift from Bradley, a gift which she promises to open only once she has reached the New World. The gift turns out to be a firebox, a device that can instantly start a fire in any situation. It will prove crucial to ensure Viola’s survival after her traumatic landing on the planet. But the meaning that this simple tool takes on in the climactic ending of the story goes beyond its practical value. This is because the moment when Viola finally opens her gift is framed as the culmination of a deep reflection, carried out throughout the story, about the concept of hope. Hope and the legacy that Viola eventually chooses to accept from her parents becomes clear in the image of the fire that keeps her warm through her first night on the New World (and which she didn’t know she had been carrying with her all along). Maybe growing up is a matter of negotiating between the lessons we are taught by our elders and the choices we make as we go along? And maybe it’s the freedom involved in these choices that makes the future both exciting and intimidating? This is captured by Viola's father in:
'He smiled, full of love. "Hope is terrifying, Viola," he said. "No one wants to admit it, but it is."
The language of a genre
This review has highlighted some of the ways in which Patrick Ness uses the language of science fiction to tell Viola’s personal and deeply tragic story.
The so-called ‘generation ship’ (akin to Viola's mission with her parents) is an age-old icon especially dear to classic American science fiction. This is where a space mission lasts for many decades resulting in there being multiple generations of crew living on the spacecraft and directing its travel. The most famous example is probably Robert Heinlein’s 'Orphans of the Sky', which brings the idea of the generation starship as a micro-world to the extreme. The novel also presents the theme of discovery of a much vaster world beyond the confines of the ship as part of the passage into adulthood.
Space exploration and colonisation (the process of settling among and taking control of indigenous peoples living in an area) are also key features of the sci-fi genre. Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris (especially in light of the strange environment Viola will find on the New World in the novels) is one of the most profound tales of alien encounters ever produced. For the same reason, and because of its surprisingly unsentimental treatment of childhood, Orson Scott Card’s classic of military science fiction 'Ender’s Game', seems to have had a powerful influence of Ness’ Chaos Walking series.
What do you think? Does Patrick Ness' 'The New World' remind you of any other texts or films you have read/watched?
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