Following on from my previous two posts, this is my dissertation proposal. Any feedback always gratefully received. Peace and love fellow space travellers
An Unweeded Garden – Articulating the Black Diaspora
I want my dissertation to be the coalescence of all that I have learned on the MA Humanities programme, combined with my passion for black culture, history, and literature. My dissertation will be a symbiosis of creative writing – An Unweeded Garden – and critical analysis; asking and answering questions on cultural identity and self-definition. My creative response to these questions will reflect my passions and form the output of my research and thinking around individuality, cultural alienation, and responses to oppression. My dissertation reflects my aspiration for inclusion and diversity to be much more than convenient badges, but to be instruments for, and of, cultural change, historical reinterpretation, and enriched self and societal understanding.
The Historical Context
Two quotes from Chinua Achebe have come to define my creative writing and underpin my quest for historical truth: ‘The last four or five hundred years of European contact with Africa produced a body of literature that presented Africa in a very bad light… [T]he reason for this had to do with the need to justify the slave trade and slavery (Bacon, 2000). An Unweeded Garden is an expositional examination of the effects of slavery on participants, willing and unwilling, and explores the everlasting effects on the lives of their descendants. It studies voice, language, and authenticity. Voicelessness and the path to reclamation of voices, stories, and histories fascinate me. Achebe’s reading of Heart of Darkness (1899) states that, ‘Joseph Conrad was a thoroughgoing racist. That this simple truth is glossed over…is due to the fact that white racism against Africa is such a normal way of thinking,’ (Achebe, 1988). I first read Heart of Darkness in 1988 and was struck by its excoriation of colonial oppression and European cultural hegemony. Achebe has forced me to re-explore my original interpretations critically. My dissertation crystallises alternative postcolonial literary analysis, reflecting on my experiences as a black man. Historically, black culture has been defined by and through white European consensus, our stories have been told for us, images of us have been painted in binary terms.
Articulating the Black Diaspora
It is time to bring the power back. As Public Enemy, progenitors of 1980s black consciousness said, ‘“Know who you are to be black,”’ (Ridenhour, et al., 1988). They called on us all to define ourselves for the modern age within a historical context only we can define. Public Enemy along with the words of Paul Gilroy, Malcolm X, and Stokely Carmichael, have assisted me in defining my past and present and have led directly to narrative and character choices in An Unweeded Garden. On the album It takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back, Public Enemy quote Khalid Abdul Muhammad, ‘Once we were brought here, we were robbed of our name, robbed of our language. We lost our religion, our culture, our god’ (Ridenhour, et al., 1988). The quote sums up the intent behind my dissertation, both creatively and critically; I want to challenge historical orthodoxy, but also challenge contemporaneous understanding of self-worth and inculcate progressive self-determination.
In An Unweeded Garden, I will examine the impacts of the eighteenth-century slave trade, on the Caribbean in 1956 and London in 2014, on the descendants of families for whom slavery has come to define them consciously and subconsciously. The creative dissertation continues the story from ‘The Novel’ module, and my own novel, in dramatising the journey of a captured teenage slave, Kofi Uwosu, from the Île de Gorée to the sugar cane plantations of the Caribbean. I examine both European and African participation in the slave trade and black people’s complicity.
It looks to contribute forcefully to the ongoing debate by modern British writers like Jackie Kay, Caryl Phillips, Barry Unsworth, and Andrea Levy in Small Island (2004), ‘…the formation of discursive identity through the encounter with others and the necessity of accommodating difference. Small Island forecloses the possibility of addressing modern multiculturalism as a purported ‘happy ending’ in light of Levy’s formulation of the Windrush moment as disruptive, violent, and overwhelmed by flawed characters,’ (Ellis, 2012) and Zadie Smith, especially in White Teeth (2000), where “…it makes an immigrant laugh to hear the fears of the nationalist, scared of infection, penetration, miscegenation, when this is small fry, peanuts, compared to what the immigrant fears — dissolution, disappearance,’ (Smith, 2000). It is these notions of otherness and difference that I will explore in my dissertation.
In An Unweeded Garden, I offer fresh perspectives on slavery and Empire, specifically focussing on the significant part played by Welshmen and the ignorance and denial of historical oppression and complicity in torture and subjugation. The story is set in Africa, the Caribbean, and the United Kingdom. To reflect the relative standings of its protagonists, I will continue to write the stories of colonial, subjective Senegal and St. Vincent in the third person, past tense. The London stories are in omniscient first person, present tense. An Unweeded Garden is a character-driven story of repossession, but equally a story of emancipation and reparation.
The distinct narrative choices on the continents and timespans reflect my interest in the effects on individuals, culture, and society when it has language imposed on it. If it is true that history is written by the victors, what then happens when there are no true victors? It seeks to engage with, ‘issues of cultural diversity, ethnic, racial, and cultural difference, and the power relations within them,’ (Ashcroft, et al., 2006, p. 5). The truth becomes increasingly difficult to delimit, let alone articulate. In An Unweeded Garden, through characterisation, setting, and voice, I underscore the opacity of being and the struggle to find new terms to define ourselves against cultural hegemony. ‘I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me,’ (Ellison, 2001, p. 1), Therefore, I have made the narrative voices unreliable and it becomes increasingly apparent that there are no winners, just characters struggling with the past and its effects on their present. The characters in An Unweeded Garden cannot escape contextualised histories, ‘I had seen how deep in nearly every West Indian, high and low, were the prejudices of race; how often these prejudices were rooted in self-contempt; and how much important action they prompted. Everyone spoke of nation and nationalism but no one was willing to surrender the privileges or even the separateness of his group,’ (Naipaul, 1962, p. 230). Prejudice is not the preserve of white Europeans, but it is also clear that united we are stronger and that we have to accept complicity in the past and the self-contempt it has brought. It is clear that to create a positive self-image, black people have to understand the context of their oppression and no longer see themselves as victims, alone, but as agents of progressive personal and ethnic development. The dissertation will stress that empowerment for all is stronger, and potentially immutable, if it is non-prejudicial. Cultural and spiritual domination becomes its own canker and to forestall its perpetuation, and the indoctrination of the colonial myth, I seek to posit new ideas and interpretations of the past. My story endeavours to bridge a world where, ‘It was the look in white people’s faces when I walked down the street,’ (Himes, 2010, p. 4), to a true civilisation where, ‘…one day…little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers,’ (Luther King Jr, 1963).
An Unweeded Garden, takes its title from Hamlet, ‘’Tis an unweeded garden that grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature possess it merely,’ (Shakespeare, 2008) and has three entwined murder mysteries, encroaching narratives, using the cut-up technique to unite interwoven pasts. My characters strive to define themselves, positively, on their own terms and to make their voices heard above cacophonous exploitation. An Unweeded Garden explores nature and the imagination and it advances new ways to understand received signs and signifiers. ‘Yet we cannot live our lives in the realm of pure ideas cocooned from sense-experience’ (Coetzee, 1999, p. 22).
The story’s central characters are fourteen-year-old black slave, Kofi Uwosu, who is found murdered, bound to his white lover – and daughter of his owner – Rhian Haf Davies and gagged before his planned hanging for his part in a slave rebellion. Rhian has an anchor and dragon cut into her face. These wounds match the branding on Kofi’s arm. These symbols of ownership and control recur throughout the narrative and come to define the characters under western eyes.
In St. Vincent in the mid-1950s, Agatha Evans is trapped by an abusive stepmother, a church and religion forced upon her family by her history. To define her future, she has to escape her past and emigrates to the United Kingdom. Agatha is immersed in the stories of her past, from her mother, Maudie, who until her death at twenty-seven, had been similarly desperate to escape it. That Agatha discovers her mother with the same branding marks as her forebears, leaves her desperate to solve the mystery, little knowing that the escape to England will eventually provide her with self-knowledge and with greater insight into who she is and can be. The mystery continues with Agatha’s stepmother’s murder after she has reached England. Characters across the stories, continents, and timespans are trying to escape their histories, but it is left to Agatha’s daughter Gwenllian, in 2015 along with her lover, Deiniol Roberts, to re-contextualise the past. Twenty-First Century London resonates with the past and the anchor and dragon motifs recur. The story’s close is open-ended and defies simple analysis. In this postcolonial world, there are no victors only victims and those struggling for understanding, acceptance, and the freedom to be.
My critical reflection is as one with my creative response in that it tackles issues of culture and race, but also studies gender, sexuality, and received ideas of consciousness and motivation. Women are doubly disenfranchised by their colonial past, often marginalised by a phallocentric, polarised society where, ‘blue-eyed, blond, thin white women could not be considered beautiful without the Other – Black women with classical African features of dark skin, broad noses… kinky hair’ (Collins, 2000, p. 79). I will analyse black writing from the Harlem Renaissance of the 1930s, taking in Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, and the closer contemporary authors Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. I will look at all aspects of contemporary black culture from the Nation of Islam and the Black Power Movement to the co-opted, hybridised, language of the streets, ghettoization, and hip-hop culture.
An Unweeded Garden is postcolonial fiction, determined to redefine an independent place in the world and society. ‘The term post-colonial is resonant with all the ambiguity and complexity of the many different cultural experiences it implicates,’ (Ashcroft, et al., 2006, p. 1). Postcolonialism is contextualised by the past and present whereby, ‘The immensely prestigious and powerful imperial culture found itself appropriated in projects of counter-colonial resistance, which drew upon the many different indigenous local hybrid processes of self-determination to defy, erode, and…supplant the prodigious power of imperial cultural knowledge,’ (Ashcroft, et al., 2006, p. 1).
Through my creative practice, I want to explore the truths, and falsehoods, of racial identity and stereotyping and experiment widely with form and characterisation through the lives and experiences of my characters to get closer to an understanding of who I am and what motivates me as a black man. In An Unweeded Garden, ‘…the juxtaposition of word and image confers authority on the context of what is being described’ (March-Russell, 2009, p. 174).
‘Writing is a means of discovery,’ (Cook, 2013, p. 204) and through the process of character creation and telling their stories, I hope to discover more about who I am and where I come from. I have and will back up this with interviews with family members and detailed research into the slave trade and the exodus of the Windrush generation. As in all stories, the omissions are as important as inclusions that choices not made say much about the creative practice and rationale is instructive. ‘Creativity…is vested in the workings of language, not in the originating self of the writer. Language endlessly interferes with itself…’ (Cook, 2013, p. 208). Though this is true, I will argue that the author has the ability to manipulate language creatively to define new meaning.
I am keenly interested in the construction and dissolution of power structures. Structures contain us, but I argue that they can help emancipate us. My reflection will look at how we can circumvent the language used to define us, when we don’t have our original lexis. We have to reclaim our language and define our own.
Escape and escapism are central to the narrative and characters of An Unweeded Garden, and through this exploration and through the understanding, creation, and definition of identity, just as “Levy’s novel, written more than fifty years after the first Windrush arrival, creates a common narrative of nation and identity in order to understand the experiences of Black people in Britain,” (Ellis, 2012) I hope to craft work that has lasting emotional and cultural significance, that I hope to take further into a Research Doctorate. I want my writing to spark interest and heighten debate, to move, entertain, and transcend the everyday.
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