Ceri Shaw



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An Interview With Tracy Prince, Author Of 'Culture Wars in British Literature: Multiculturalism and National Identity'

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By: Ceri Shaw
Posted in: Author Interviews

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Tracy Prince. Scholar in Residence at the Portland Center for Public Humanities

"The author of Portland''s Goose Hollow (2011) and Culture Wars in British Literature: Multiculturalism and National Identity (2012), Dr. Tracy Prince is also a featured speaker for Oregon Humanities in the Conversation Project program and travels throughout Oregon presenting "Uniquely Oregon: Native American Art of Oregon." Dr. Prince has spent her career teaching and writing about race, gender, and social equity issues. She uncovers forgotten or overlooked historical moments by digging through archives and interviewing folks who like to talk about the good ol'' days."

AmeriCymru spoke to Tracy about here recent book ''Culture Wars: Other Voices in British Literature" which provided the theme and title for our recent ( Oct 4th, 2013 ) panel discussion at the Portland Center for Public Humanities


Culture Wars AmeriCymru: Hi Tracy and many thanks for agreeing to talk to AmeriCymru. How would you characterize the theme or central thesis of your recent book ''Culture Wars '' ?

Tracy: Thanks! I’ve appreciated learning about the good work AmeriCymru does to promote Welsh writers in English. Good stuff!

In my book I argue that British literature is more than Anglo-English literature, despite depictions by London literary elite and anthologies. When teaching and researching 20th and 21st century British literature, I was frustrated to see that literary anthologies and public discussions about Britain’s literature and identity still often exclude ethnic- minority writers and often remain fixated on an Anglo-English versi on of Britishness. My book analyzes who is left out of the British literary canon and explores the culture wars surrounding the discussion of Britishness (highlighting how a white Anglo-English image of British identity has been promoted and assumed and its supposed demise grieved over).

Here’s the blurb my publisher put on the back of the book:

The past century''s culture wars that Britain has been consumed by, but that few North Americans seem aware of, have resulted in revised notions of Britishness and British literature. Yet literary anthologies remain anchored to an archaic Anglo-English interpretation of British literature. Conflicts have been played out over specific national vs. British identity (some residents prefer to describe themselves as being from Scotland, England, Wales, or Northern Ireland instead of Britain), in debates over immigration, race, ethnicity, class, and gender, and in arguments over British literature. These debates are strikingly detailed in such chapters as: "The Difficulty Defining ''Black British''," "British Jewish Writers" and "Xenophobia and the Booker Prize." Connections are also drawn between civil rights movements in the U.S. and UK. This generalist cultural study is a lively read and a fascinating glimpse into Britain''s changing identity as reflected in 20th and 21st century British literature.

AmeriCymru: What special difficulties do you see in defining British literature in the modern age?

Tracy: Consciously or unconsciously, presuppositions of Anglo-English centrality remain deeply imbedded in the teaching of British literature. A study of this issue reveals the underpinnings of the construction and maintenance of an Anglo-English definition of Britishness and the British literary canon. John Freeman, the editor of Granta (literary magazine published in England) claims: “American writers are constantly engaged with the question of being American.” He was implying that this is a uniquely American trait and that he doesn’t see British literature as having these qualities. Indeed, American literature is widely understood as central to the process of how American-ness is analyzed and defined. But I believe that British literature has been equally as important to the analyzing and defining of Britishness, even when critics and authors claim to focus strictly on literary aesthetics and would not think of themselves as engaging with issues surrounding British identity. British literature offers many cues to the reader about what Britishness means, about who is included, and about who is excluded.

So, my book is filled with quotes from a variety of writers in the UK who have expressed how they feel about Britishness (from the early 20 th century to 21 st century authors). I also cover the decline of the British Empire, immigration, race/ethnicity, and devolution debates and how writers have responded to those issues. And I cite studies that attempt to quantify how UK residents feel about being British. For example, in 2003, when polls were conducted in England asking whether residents would describe themselves as English or British, 38% said English and 48% said British. In Scotland the study revealed that 72% identified themselves as Scottish and 20% as British. In Wales the study revealed that 60% identified themselves as Welsh and 27% as British. When the BBC conducted an online survey asking people “What Makes You British?” a man from Scotland responded that he is Scottish and has never considered himself British. “[M]y views on what it means to be ‘British’ will be the same as many from Scotland, Wales and Ireland, that being ‘British’ equals being English.” He wonders “what there is to be proud of when British achievements tend to focus on English achievements.”

An example of presuppositions of Anglo-English centrality is that A.S. Byatt assembled an anthology in 1998, the Oxford Book of English Short Stories , in which she ethnically cleansed writers in England. Shockingly, she even explained her editorial criteria as selecting “writers with pure English national credentials.” Yet most literary critics didn’t notice her ethnic cleansing. Only a Black British and a British Jewish literary critic noticed. Byatt’s anthology, read widely throughout the world and republished by Oxford University Press in 2000, 2003, and 2009, serves to continue reifying and “marketing” Englishness as white Anglo-ness among students and teachers of literature around the world. It is not surprising then, when London-born, English writer Hanif Kureishi demands a different version of Englishness and of Britishness. He declares that it is time for “the white British” to deal with the idea that there is “a new way of being British after all this time.”

Professor Jane Aaron, who teaches in Wales, offers a Welsh perspective of British national identity tensions in Postcolonial Wales . Her view is that when many people throughout Britain hear someone referring to themselves as British, this is often understood as coming from someone who is English. “[I]n today’s Britain, the default position for those who identify, or are identified, as British only, with no qualifiers, remains an unexamined English cultural identity.” (15) In much of the North American academy and in many university settings around the world, British literature often continues to be taught (1) without addressing this “unexamined [Anglo] English cultural identity,” (2) with little discussion of contemporary multicultural and national identity debates in the United Kingdom, and (3) without including a cross- section of authors from throughout the four nations of the United Kingdom.

My goal was to present evidence from surveys, films, literature, television shows, children’s books, political debates, etc. to give a glimpse into how dramatically the sense of what it means to be British has changed in the last 100 years. I wrote the book with a non-academic audience in mind. So I write in a reader-friendly way that teaches the history of the issues and authors, and I hope it inspires people to make reading lists of the authors they’d like to read more of.

AmeriCymru: In Chapter 6 you state that:- "Britain''s culture wars are on explicit technicolor display in discussions about the Man Booker Prize" Can you tell us more?

Tracy: In 1994 the prize was awarded to Scottish author James Kelman for How Late It Was, How Late , written in a working class Scottish dialect. According to literary critic Merritt Moseley, the selection process was flawed by its eagerness to be “politically correct” and select multicultural rather than “English” entries. “The selection and award process for the U.K.’s Booker Prize for novels is cumbersome, biased against English entries.... The novels reflected a multi-cultural background that, while politically correct, did not include native, non-minority British authors.” This statement is a blatant effort to portray white writers from England as the downtrodden and to blast efforts at political correctness for the perceived displacement of Anglo-English writers from the center of the British literary realm.

Pat Barker, 1995’s Booker Prize winner for The Ghost Road , made provocative comments which revealed a lot about Britain’s culture wars over multiculturalism and national identity. She said: “I think that there is a certain amount of unacknowledged resentment among ... white native British writers, on the ground that the additional tinge of exoticism when it comes to the Booker Prize does a writer no harm at all.” Barker further pronounces that although it is difficult to say this in a way “that does not sound racist ... there’s a sort of resentment that the Booker judges are so obviously straining to be unparochial and exotic ... the homegrown English novel is really rather undervalued now.” I found it fascinating that Barker too seemed to be painting a picture of the Anglo-English as underdogs in the Booker Prize process. This idea would be found laughable among Welsh writers, who struggle to get on the radar of what is now called the Man Booker Prize (based upon its current sponsorship).

A.S. Byatt has expressed similar indignation over the “left-wing political correctness in this country” which she sees as unfairly privileging the “Empire Strikes Back” authors. Byatt calls “total rubbish” any notions that the English novel has become daring or more interesting with the addition of “these books by people from elsewhere.” She calls the “Empire Strikes Back” a “myth” that obscures writers like Muriel Spark, Lawrence Durrell, William Golding, Iris Murdoch, and Anthony Burgess: “All those people were in place, writing away, absolutely brilliant. They’re all English; they’re all white. It doesn’t seem to me that anything Rushdie does is anything more interesting technically than what they do—although it’s not less interesting.”

About the 2003 Booker Prize lineup, Fiachra Gibbons, writing for the Guardian , called attention to the prize’s excessive focus, not just on England, but on writers in the greater London area. (The M25 motorway surrounds Greater London. Although Oxford and Cambridge are outside the loop, they are within an hour’s train ride to London.) “It was as if Martyn Goff, the Booker Svengali ... had imposed an accent test so that [they] ... might not be threatened by barbarous tongues from beyond the moat of the M25.” Gibbons marveled at the incestuous nature of the London literary scene’s Booker Prize judges and longlisted authors, since the judges seemed to focus on their friends in and near London, with a few gratuitous outsiders thrown in. As the judges posted effusive comments about writers from north London and Oxford “and the odd exile to the sticks” on their online diaries, Gibbons said he couldn’t help but play the “old mental game, How Are They Related?” He mused: “I may have got this all horribly wrong, of course. No doubt the judges have concealed youths spent digging coal with teaspoons in the Welsh valleys or working the checkouts on the dawn shift at Grimethorpe Asda. But that is not what it looked and sounded like to me, or anyone else cringing at home who craved just the merest acknowledgement that someone outside the Woosterian Brahmin caste of literary London might read a book, or know good writing when they saw it.”

In The Postcolonial Exotic: Marketing the Margins (2001) British academic Graham Huggan blames the media, the Booker Prize, and the postcolonial literary establishment for this focus on the “exotic.” He argues that postcolonial writers, academic critics, the Booker Prize, and publishers are at fault because they “market” “exotic” imperialist nostalgia. Of course, one look at the definition of the countries eligible for the Booker Prize refutes this premise. Since this prize is an award for Commonwealth and Irish writers, the percentage of British and more specifically Anglo-English writers represented on shortlists and longlists is embarrassingly high. (In 2013 the rules were changed to allow American writers to be eligible). In fact, 20th and 21st century novels about and by Anglo-England are being read in disproportionate numbers around the world, in places where Anglo-English experiences seem “exotic” to people who have few points of reference with this culture. The only way these Anglo-English novels are sold to people whose lives bear no resemblance to the lives in the novels is through marketing and especially through marketing of imperialist literary nostalgia. Thus, instead of arguing that the Booker is overly concerned with so-called “exotic” novels, the argument is easily made that there is a great big world of eligible writers who, over the life of the Booker Prize, have been ignored in favor of mostly Anglo-English writers.

The discussions that have occurred over the past few decades have often made it abundantly clear who is considered British, who is thought of as “exotic,” and who is though of as “homegrown.” Writers are always being given the advice to “write what you know.” Yet when writers outside of an Anglo-English London/Oxford/Cambridge moat write what they know, from their cultural perspectives, which are not Anglo-English perspectives, they are called “exotic” then blamed for pandering with their exoticness and “marketing” it. This excruciatingly obvious point seems to have escaped great swathes of the British literary establishment.

Consciously or unconsciously, many Anglo-English critics and authors have been disquieted over the decline of their literary empire, wondering why “homegrown” stories seem not as engaging as global ones, and fortifying themselves against what Pat Barker called the “exotic” people and, as A.S. Byatt said, the “people from elsewhere.”

AmeriCymru: In your opinion, how has the ''rapidly changing sense of national identity'' in Britain (both pre and post devolution) been reflected in the writings of Welsh authors?

Tracy: Black Welsh writer Charlotte Williams imagines a revised Britishness. She writes of her upbringing in Wales by a Welsh speaking white mother and a black Guyanese father in Sugar and Slate (2002). When she lived in Guyana for a few years she was thought of as British, though being Welsh calls to her most profoundly. Williams traces connections between Africa and Wales in an effort to write a history of Wales that includes her story within Welsh identity.

And white Welsh writer R.S. Thomas (1913–2000), the son of a sea captain, pointed out the English-centered ideas within Britain: “Britishness is a mask. Beneath it there is only one nation, England.” He declared: “Britain does not exist for me. It is an abstraction forced on the Welsh people.” While he chaffed at the domination of a British identity over a Welsh identity, he also chaffed at the Welsh people whom he saw as being lazy, indifferent, or snobbish when they chose to speak English instead of Welsh.

Born in Cardiff in 1923 Dannie Abse wrote about his Jewishness and Welshness in Goodbye, Twentieth Century: An Autobiography (2001). However, Abse lived much of his adult life in Golders Green, London, primarily a Jewish neighborhood, with many synagogues and Jewish owned restaurants, bakeries, and bookstores. A doctor as well as a novelist, playwright, and poet, his 1954 autobiographical novel Ash on a Young Man’s Sleeve tells of growing up in Wales in the 1930s. In his poem “Case History” he writes about the double marginalization of being both Jewish and Welsh. He tells of an interaction with a patient:

‘Most Welshmen are worthless,

an inferior breed, doctor.’

He did not know I was Welsh.

Then he praised the architects

of the German death-camps—

did not know I was a Jew.

AmeriCymru: Care to tell us a little about any Anglo Welsh writer or writers who have captured your attention in recent years?

Tracy: Since I focus a lot on the Man Booker Prize, here are a few Welsh writers featured there: The Booker Prize winner in 1970 for The Elected Member and short-listed in 1978 for A Five-Year Sentence , Bernice Rubens (1928– 2004) was born in Wales to a father who had escaped anti-Semitism in Lithuania and a mother whose family had fled Poland. Timothy Mo (born in Hong Kong to a white Welsh-English mom and a Cantonese dad, moved to England at age 10) has had three short-listed novels: Sour Sweet , An Insular Possession , and The Redundancy of Courage . Chinese-Welsh writer Peter Ho Davies was raised in England but spent his summers in Wales. His The Welsh Girl was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2007 and deals with complex questions of belonging, loyalty, and identity. Sarah Waters was born in Neyland, Pembrokeshire. Her books Fingersmith (2002), The Night Watch (2006), and The Little Stranger were shortlisted (2009). Born in Cardiff, Trezza Azzopardi’s The Hiding Place (2000) was short-listed for the Booker Prize. This story of an immigrant Maltese family delves into the Cardiff underworld of the 1960s.

Another Welsh writer that I write about is Leonora Brito, who passed away in 2007. Brito lived in Cardiff her entire life and was called a “voice...from the long-established, but hitherto culturally under-represented, multi-ethnic communities of Cardiff ’s Docklands.” Tiger Bay (the Docklands), her neighborhood, was known for its migrant communities from over 40 different countries who, for more than a century, had been attracted by work at this busy harbor. In the last half of the twentieth century the area was filled with decrepit buildings because of the decline of the coal industry and the related decline of harbor traffic. So in 1999 in a re-development scheme, large areas were bulldozed and the bay was reconfigured and, in a controversial move, renamed Cardiff Bay. Brito’s Dat’s Love (1995) and Chequered Histories (2006) tells the stories of that neighborhood before it was bulldozed by exploring the life, love, pressures, and tensions of Black Welsh women.

AmeriCymru: Do you foresee a time when ''Welsh Writing In English'' is taught as a separate subject or discipline in American universities?

Tracy: Such a course would have strong appeal for Welsh ex-pats and people of Welsh ancestry, so I would think it wise for American universities to explore this option. However, I have taught literature in three countries (America, Canada, Turkey), and I can report that many universities do not have the funding or professors specializing in Welsh literature to add a course on Welsh Writing in English.

Since most universities offer British literature every semester, it seems important to at least make sure that Welsh writing in English is taught more robustly in British literature courses. Because of America''s strong link to the Mother Country, because of our continuing "special relationship" with Britain, the teaching of British history and literature will remain important in American universities. Thus it is important to have the teaching of British literature include all of Britain and not just London, Oxford, and Cambridge. My feeling is that it is bizarre and archaic to see the teaching of British literature and British literary anthologies continuing to focus mostly on dead, white, English writers. I feel that it is crucial to include the teaching of Welsh writing within the British literary tradition (while pointing out Welsh discomfort with the “British” label).

However, it would be great to think of ways to encourage universities to enhance their courses by offering Welsh Writing in English. It seems like the demand would be strong.

AmeriCymru: What''s next for Dr. Tracy J. Prince ? Will you be exploring similar themes in future works?

Tracy: I’ll continue to do talks to teach folks about the political/cultural issues brought up in Culture Wars in British Literature . My upcoming schedule includes talks at the University of Washington Tacoma (12/2) and University of British Columbia in Canada (12/3). But I research in a wide array of historical areas. I researched Oregon history back to Indian and pioneer days in two pictorial history books ( Portland''s Goose Hollow 2011 and the co-authored Portland’s Slabtown 2013) that allowed me to dig around in archives and talk to folks about the good ol’ days. The literary non-fiction book I''m currently writing, Might Oughta Keep Singin'' , is taking me back to my roots--to the sharecroppin'' plantation where my dad grew up pickin’ cotton in the Arkansas delta region (across the Mississippi River from where Elvis grew up). It''s the story of four generations of southern women, breast cancer, and the music of the American south.

I have eclectic intellectual interests. For my author page on Facebook, I’m "encouraged,” every time I log in, to buy an ad to increase traffic to my page. I joked with my friends that the ad would need to read: "Are you interested in Oregon history, Native American art, 1930s-60s magazine illustrations, architectural preservation, British literature, the history of Southern music, cotton sharecropping in Arkansas, or Oklahoma half-breeds? Then I''m just the professor for you!" So, if you share any of those interests, let’s chat! https://www.facebook.com/ TracyJPrincePhD?ref=hl

I also enjoy connecting with folks on Twitter @TracyJPrince and Goodreads. So, stop on by and say hello when you mosey that way.

AmeriCymru: Any final message for readers of the Welsh American Bookstore?

Tracy: Maureen Duffy, poet, playwright, and critic, muses on the state of angst over British and English identities in England: The Making of Myth from Stonehenge to Albert Square (2001). Her book deals with some popular English perceptions regarding the inclusion of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland within the concept of Britain, with the English feeling threatened, aggrieved, and abandoned—feeling that their identity is “under threat.” I think this quote from her is very revealing when discussing what a collective British identity means: “Scotland and Wales have no difficulty with their myths; they have several hundred years of opposition and reluctant integration in which to polish them. We, the English, on the other hand had always believed deep down that the union was indissoluble, that the Scots and Welsh didn’t really mean it in spite of the example of Ireland. Now devolution has actually happened and they have assemblies, flags, control over their own affairs. We feel aggrieved, abandoned, and find it hard to accept the outcome of what we have done. We argue over whether ‘they’ should have the right to sit in “our” parliament and vote on ‘our’ affairs. We have always regarded our confederates as children, as we did the rest of the empire, even though they are historically our predecessors.”

I find the most interesting parts of British literature are authors who are struggling with a sense of a cohesive British identity. With post-war immigration leading to a more multi-ethnic populace and with uncertainties brought about by devolution, it is important and fascinating when writers explore what it means to be British. I’d like to see more British literature courses teaching this conflicted sense of Britishness.

Ceri Shaw
09/05/16 04:00:07AM @ceri-shaw:

View the panel discussion "Culture Wars - Other Voices in British Literature" here:-