Tag Archives: migration

What is the City but the People? Manchester, Children’s Literature, and the World

Last week I took my MA students to Manchester.  Officially, they are on a course I designed called Race, Literature and the Archive—but students don’t come on Summer Abroad Courses just for extra library time (shock horror).  Many of them were particularly interested in Manchester because of the recent terrorist attack on the Manchester Arena during the Ariana Grande concert in which 22 (mostly young) people were killed.  We had discussed the diversity in Manchester prior to coming to England, and they wanted to know how the city was handling the attack.  I have, of course, been to Manchester several times, and knew exactly how Manchester would be handling it—but I was pleased to see signs all over the city advertising the Manchester International Festival (currently in progress).  They said, simply, What is the City but the People?

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This sign was everywhere in the city–and sometimes it even mentioned the International Festival that it was advertising . . . 

This sign was a perfect introduction for my students before we went to the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre.  I’ve mentioned the centre in previous blogs; it was set up to honor the school boy, Ahmed Iqbal Ullah, who was murdered by a classmate in 1986 on the school playground.  The classmate then went on to brag that he had killed “a Paki”.  Ullah was not Pakistani, but Bangladeshi; however, he had been known in the school for defending Pakistani classmates when they were being bullied for their ethnic origins.  Jackie Ould, the director of the education arm of the AIU Centre, talked with my students about the tragedy of Ullah’s death, but also about the positive ways that the community (local and global) came together after the murder.  The legacy of Ullah if he had lived we will never know, but the legacy of his death is described in a booklet which anyone can download: http://www.racearchive.org.uk/legacy-ahmed-iqbal-ullah-2/.  For me, the most important part of the legacy has been the Race Relations Centre, as it not only provided research support for my forthcoming book (Children’s Publishing and Black Britain, 1965-2015, appearing from Palgrave Macmillan in a few weeks) but also introduced me to the projects that Ould initiates with school children of Manchester.

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This booklet is downloadable from the AIU Centre website.

These book projects have ranged from biographies of Black and Asian Britons to folktales of the places where Manchester’s immigrants have come.  While early folktales came from Afro-Caribbean, Indian, Pakistani, Roma or Travellers, the most recent two came from communities who represent newer waves of immigration to Manchester, the Somalis and the Sudanese.  Both countries suffered under civil wars in the 1990s and 2000s, and the UK opened its doors to migrants and refugees fleeing from violence.  England has the largest Somali immigrant population in Europe.  Refugees from South Sudan are the third largest asylum-seeking group in the world.  Nonetheless, they represent a tiny proportion of the population of Britain.  According to the Red Cross, “There are an estimated 118,995 refugees living in the UK. That’s just 0.18 per cent of the total population (65.1 million people)” (http://www.redcross.org.uk/What-we-do/Refugee-support/Refugee-facts-and-figures) – hardly the “swarm” of people that the anti-immigration groups (and tabloids) like to suggest.  Like other immigrants to Britain, they suffer discrimination and racism, even when they don’t struggle to find work that suits their qualifications or decent housing.

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Folktales may seem distant from the present, but interacting with the past the way these schoolchildren did can also make sense of the current moment.

It may seem that folktales, set in the distant past, have little to do with the struggles of refugee groups in Britain today.  But Ould’s folktale projects do important work.  First, the two recent folktales immediately align these immigrant groups with positive attributes just by virtue of their titles: the Somali story is entitled The Clever Princess and the Sudanese story is The Kindly Ghost.  The main characters in these stories not only help others, they also are active in achieving their own destiny.  Both protagonists are beset by problems that they overcome through their strength and quick thinking.  They learn that kindness toward bullies is not worth it, and that persistence is needed to win out over despair.  These are all useful lessons for immigrants—but importantly, they are also useful lessons for everyone.  The book projects that Ould and the school children produce are not done exclusively (or sometimes even at all) by members of those immigrant communities.  In fact, part of the point for Ould is that school children learn about each other.  This includes learning about their similarities as well as their differences: by retelling folktales, school children learn how folktales have universal ideas, common characters, settings and plots.  Characters journey seeking wisdom and happiness all over the world.

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Jackie Ould, education director at the AIU Centre, helps students interact with Manchester’s history through the Archives+ project in the Central Library.

After her presentation on the origins of the centre, Ould took us upstairs in the central library to show us the Archives+ project (http://www.archivesplus.org/), where through digitization of documents and central displays, ordinary library users can unlock the secrets of the archives to learn about the history of Manchester.  My students immediately started looking through the artifacts that told about the various waves of immigration to the city.  They learned about the Sikh struggles to be allowed to legally wear turbans at their jobs or on motorcycles; they found out more about Ahmed Iqbal Ullah’s Bangladeshi community; they looked at pictures of the Afro-Caribbean community at Moss Side.  Being able to interact with the material—just like the Manchester school children who retold and illustrated the folktales—encouraged them to dig deeper, find out more, be aware of the different people that made up this city.  The Archives+ project, like the folktale project, promotes the idea that everyone’s story matters, and that stories of the city are for everyone.  Manchester is not alone in this; it may take more digging, but most cities have histories worth uncovering, and it would be worth examining the treasures of your local archives.  Because, at the end of the day, what is the city but the people?

 

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Never Too Early to Begin: Resistance and Literature for Youth

This week, several people working for various US government agencies, including the EPA, the department of the interior, and the department of agriculture, have reacted to the Trump order barring external communication (http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/ct-epa-contract-freeze-media-blackout-20170124-story.html) by creating alternative, or rogue, twitter accounts. Even those agencies who haven’t done so have found interesting ways to speak out. My favorite was Death Valley National Park, whose official Twitter site, @DeathValleyNPS, took time yesterday to tweet, not about the climate change science that is so annoying the Trump administration, but about the history of Death Valley and Japanese internees. “During WWII Death Valley hosted 65 endangered internees after the Manzanar Riot,” one tweet read. This came on the same day that Trump signed an order to (temporarily, he says) prevent refugees from entering the country and banning visas for people from certain Middle Eastern and African countries (http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trump-immigration-exclusive-idUSKBN1582XQ). The timing of the Death Valley tweet did not, to some readers, seem coincidental; one asked if they’d ever tweeted about this “during the last 8 years”—i.e. during Obama’s presidency. As it turned out, they had; the park feels that history, as well as nature, matters. In this case, the history is complicated; the word “hosted” is interesting, because of course the Japanese-Americans moved to Death Valley were still in an internment camp, and they were moved because other Japanese-Americans at Manzanar thought they were collaborating with the government. But the @DeathValleyNPS tweets serve as a reminder that resistance to official, authoritarian, or institutional policy can come in many forms.

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Abolitionists sow the seeds of justice in 1847.

With that in mind, I thought I’d look at several different kinds of children’s literature from a variety of locations that promote resistance to such policy, both recent and historical. The oldest book I’ll mention here is also for the youngest audience: The Anti-Slavery Alphabet from 1847, published for the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Fair that year (although the book is without pictures, sales were apparently “brisk” according to the society). I’ve written about alphabet books before; seemingly innocuous, they have frequently been used to further activist agendas suggesting that, as the epigraph on the Anti-Slavery Alphabet reads, it is necessary to “In the morning sow thy seed” (n.p.). This sentiment is made even more explicit in the rhyme that accompanies the alphabet’s letter “Y”: “Y is for Youth—the time for all/ Bravely to war with sin;/ And think not it can ever be/ Too early to begin” (n.p.). Youth, according to the book, can begin to war with the sins of adults as early as they begin to learn their letters.

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Year 3 students at St James Primary School in Manchester created this leopard, looking shocked at Anansi’s ability to trick him.

And youth’s own creative powers are what will counter society’s wrongs. A picture book from the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Trust may not be as openly didactic as the abolitionists, but Anansi Makes it Happen (2011) has equally activist goals. The AIU trust was set up in response to the racially-motivated murder of a 13-year-old boy by one of his classmates in Manchester in 1986, when (as now) migrants to the UK were being told to “go home” even when they were there legally and/or from birth. The education arm of the trust, run by Jacqui Ould, “aim[s] to celebrate the creativity of children and teachers in our multicultural city” (inside front cover blurb from Anansi Makes it Happen). Ould helps multiracial schools create versions of stories from a variety of the places from which migrants to the UK have come. The Anansi stories retold and illustrated by two primary schools honor the Caribbean and African migrants to Manchester. Knowing all this background makes the first story in the collection, “Why Spider Lives in Ceilings” that much more poignant. In the story, powerful, carnivorous Leopard not only steals Anansi’s home, he plans to eat the spider when he tries to return. Anansi is not defeated by Leopard’s size or power; he uses creative methods to stay alive and keep his home, just as the schoolchildren telling the story are using their creative powers to become authors and the AIU Trust supports projects to make the UK a more welcoming place for those who might be seen as weak or powerless.

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In our imaginations, we all fly free. Cover design by Maria Elias.

Both The Anti-Slavery Alphabet and the efforts of the AIU Trust address people who are already present in a country, whether through forced enslavement or through voluntary or involuntary migration. Zana Fraillon’s The Bone Sparrow (2016), on the other hand, is a powerful reminder of what it is like for people who exist in the no-man’s land of refugee camps. The main character, Subhi, is Rohingya, an ethnic Muslim minority from Myanmar/Burma. But Subhi himself is not from Myanmar, or from Australia where he is living in a detention center guarded by armed soldiers. He was born in the camp, and knows no other life until the story begins. The camp is a miserable place, with not enough food, medicine, clothing or suitable housing, let alone education for the children. As Subhi’s sister comments, “‘Here, we are the dead rats they leave out to stop other rats from coming’” (109-110). But as Fraillon points out in her afterword, “desperate people continue to seek safety in countries lucky enough to boast peace” (230). She comments about the Australian government’s law making it “a criminal offense to disclose the mistreatment of refugees in detention” (231) before suggesting places where information on this mistreatment can be found. Fraillon’s fictional imagining of the camp in The Bone Sparrow encourages readers’ empathy, and hopefully will result in their activism.

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Anthologies can encourage resistance too; this one includes the poems of Mikey Smith. Cover illustration by Tony Hudson.

Since I’ve written about alphabet books from America, folktale retellings from British children, and a middle-grade novel from Australia, I’ll end with another literary form for a different audience that comes from a different country. Jamaican poet Mikey Smith is anthologized in Facing the Sea: A New Anthology from the Caribbean Region for Secondary Schools (eds. Anne Walmsley and Nick Castor; Heinemann, 1986). His inclusion is important because he is a good poet, but also because he is a poet of resistance who was (allegedly, but only because no one has ever been charged) murdered after heckling government officials. Smith’s poem, “Me feel it, yuh see” tells what happens when young people are oppressed for too long by the institutions that surround them who “devalue dem dignity” (Facing 105). Smith’s poem concludes poignantly but powerfully: “anytime yuh see/ de yout-man-dem stumble/ doan tink dem fall./ Watch out!/ Dem a plan fi meck yuh bawl!” (106). With enough resistance, even walls fall down—and that’s a lesson that all kids should learn.

How to Solve a Migrant Crisis with Children’s Books

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The diary series was a popular format; Cooke used it to interrogate racism in Britain. Illustrated by Brian Duggan.

Last week, Alex O’Connell made the recently republished memoir for children by Floella Benjamin, Coming to England (Macmillan), the Times children’s book of the week. The tagline (in the paper edition but not on the website) calls Benjamin’s book, “a timely tale of migration” and O’Connell writes, “There aren’t many successful memoirs pitched to this age group, but Floella Benjamin’s story . . . is gripping”  (http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/coming-to-england-by-floella-benjamin-b2cbc0grg). I’d like to unpack some of the language here, particularly the notion of the timeliness of the story, the apparent absence of memoirs for young people, and the idea of what makes a memoir for children successful.

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The 1997 Puffin edition of Floella Benjamin’s memoir. Cover illustration by Michael Frith.

Benjamin’s book was first published in 1995, after she had rose to prominence as a children’s television presenter on shows such as Play School but before she had become a baroness. Britain was at an uncertain moment with regard to race relations; only two years earlier, 18-year-old Stephen Lawrence had been murdered and the two white youths charged had not been prosecuted, due to insufficient evidence (and, it would later be determined, investigative failures by the police). Thus Benjamin’s book was originally speaking to an audience with a heightened awareness of British racism against Black, and particularly Caribbean, people (whether they felt that racism was a justified response or not). Benjamin discusses her own experiences of racism, concluding after one incident, “That was the day I realized that in the eyes of some people in this world I was not a person but a colour” (82). Benjamin’s reaction to racism, however, was not to fight the power structure, but accept it. She learns to speak the “Queen’s English” after her teacher calls her a guttersnipe for using patois; Benjamin puts away her Trinidadian accent for “appropriate times” (101). She also accepts that in order to “make people see me as a person” (116), she would “have to work twice as hard as anyone else and be twice as good” (116). Benjamin’s story provides a model for dealing with racism that puts the onus on the victim, rather than the racist, to change their behaviors and attitudes; it is a model that has worked for Benjamin, allowing her to maintain a strong sense of self-esteem that she tries to convey to her readers. It also makes her a “good immigrant”—one willing to accept the ways of society without pushing back (and perhaps this is why it has been reprinted several times and is now being touted as a “timely” book for a society uncertain over new waves of migrants).

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Front cover of Nichols Leslyn in London, illustrated by Annabel Large

But Benjamin’s model is not the only one, and there are several book written for a similar age and audience that address issues of migration and the racism that results differently. Interestingly, some of the best are fictional memoirs written by authors who migrated later in life (such as Grace Nichols) or who are British-born (such as Trish Cooke). Poet Grace Nichols wrote one of her only novels for children, Leslyn in London (Hodder and Stoughton, 1984) more than ten years before Benjamin’s memoirs appeared; Britain was, if anything, even more gripped by racial tension than in 1995, as the book appeared during the time period of the Brixton and Handsworth riots and the New Cross Fire. The protagonist, Leslyn, is quite young in the story—a first year junior—but this does not safeguard her from racist experiences. She is called a “nig-nog” (23) and “gollywog” (43) but this does not make her want to try harder to please. Her teacher finds her restless in school, and Leslyn makes up imaginary friends for company. Success comes, not in overcoming racism, or in working twice as hard at school, but in finding a person—a new girl at school who feels similarly left out—with whom she can be herself, as she is, rather than how others want her to be.

Bradford-born Trish Cooke also wrote a fictional migration memoir, which was published in Franklin Watts “Diary” series (the series included titles such as Diary of a Young Nurse in World War II and Diary of a Young Roman Soldier). The Diary of a Young West Indian Immigrant (2003), unlike Leslyn in London, is about a somewhat older girl (the book spans the period from 1961 to 1966, when the protagonist, Gloria, is between the ages of 10 and 16), but the reading level is suitable for a younger reader. The many illustrations and short page count (96 pages total) also place the book in a younger reading category. Cooke’s book also deals with racism, of both a casual and more direct kind. On Gloria’s first day of school, the teacher pats her hair and lets the other students in the class do the same (37), so the next day Gloria straightens it in order to better fit in—but the teacher and students “all looked at me with pity” (38). It is apparently better, in her teacher’s eyes, that Gloria be petted like an animal than try to fit in. Later, when she is older, her school careers counsellor tells her she is “out of her depth” (68) when she says she wants to become a lawyer, and suggests factory work instead. As with the hair incident, Gloria at first tries to accept her fate and fit in, taking the factory placement work experience. But when they offer her a permanent place, Gloria decides not to take it, writing that her counsellor, “didn’t give me the right advice. I intend to find out how to go about becoming a lawyer, and if not a lawyer then something more fitting to me” (91). Cooke’s narrative reinforces the notion that sometimes even well-meaning white people do not have answers that work for migrants.

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Bloom’s novel, like fellow poet Nichols’ novel, is no longer in print.

 

I’m glad Benjamin’s memoir is back in print, but the books I discuss here, along with Valerie Bloom’s Surprising Joy (Macmillan 2003) and Kate Elizabeth Ernest’s Birds in the Wilderness (Methuen 1995) are not. Fictional accounts of migration can often address issues of racism more directly than a nonfiction memoir—and may give readers more options for thinking about their own experiences. Having more accounts of migration experiences, fictional or not, accepting British society or rejecting it, would be timely for all British readers to remind them that migration is not a new issue, and there are lots of ways to navigate its pitfalls and celebrate its joys.