Tag Archives: terrorism

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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Into the Wild, Into the World: David Almond’s Island

British author David Almond has spent his career writing books for children and young adults that explore the idea of wildness.  Sometimes it is the wildness outside the main character, such as in the much-lauded 1998 novel Skellig.  Sometimes it is the wilderness and the ancient myths called forth by landscape, as in the 2014 A Song for Ella Grey which retells Orpheus and Eurydice along the Bamburgh dunes.  Sometimes it is the wildness within a character, as in the 2008 graphic novel, created with illustrator Dave McKean, The Savage.  The idea of the wild and untamed is, Almond’s novels suggest, a part of all of us as well as all that surrounds us; understanding it can give us insight into our pain and accepting it can often help us heal what is broken.

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Almond’s books connect young people with an ancient wildness, inside and outside of themselves.

Knowing about Almond’s focus on the wild is important for understanding his recent novella, Island (Hodder, 2017).  Island was a £1 World Book Day selection in the UK, meaning that the book is sold for a single pound, until it is out of print, and school children in the UK can use their National Book Token to get it for free.  World Book Day is connected with UNESCO; however, the British celebration is not a government initiative but a charity, and therefore reliant on the generous support of authors and publishers who are willing to participate (you can read more about it here: http://www.worldbookday.com/about/).  The books this year, like the shortlisted books for the Carnegie Medal, were all written by white authors, something I (and others—see http://forreadingaddicts.co.uk/childrens-literature/world-book-day-2017-selections-criticism/13835 for a summary) complained about (in this particular moment, when there are so many great writers of colour in the UK, it seemed absurd that not one was asked to write for this celebration).  I doubt it had anything to do with me, but I do want to point out that since the announcement of the selections and resulting criticism, the World Book Day website has highlighted several books with diverse authors and characters.

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Almond’s Island was a 2017 World Book Day selection.

However, the lack of diversity in authors made me even keener to read Almond’s selection.  In addition to admiring Almond’s dreamlike prose, and having had my own personal pilgrimage to the book’s setting of Lindisfarne (Northumbria’s Holy Island), I was curious to see how Almond would develop the character of Hassan, a boy from Syria.  His initial appearance in the novella comes as white British Louise, through whom the novel is focalized, is traveling with her father to Lindisfarne, an island only reachable by a causeway in low tide.  Louise and her father travel to the Holy Island every year to remember Louise’s mother, now dead, and the happy times they had as a family there.  The island, therefore, is both wild and familiar to Louise, and—as with the wild in Almond’s other books—represents a place where she can connect with her past and heal her pain in the beauty of nature.  “We’ve been coming here every year, ever since Mum died.  It’s a holiday that’s also a pilgrimage, a journey into the beautiful past” (6), Louise says.

The boy they pass on the causeway seems to be an intrusion into this beautiful past; Louise’s father instantly labels the boy an outsider (“doesn’t look like he comes from here, does he?” he says on page eight) and refuses to offer him a ride or any other assistance.  Strangers, for Louise’s father, are dangerous.  He tells her, “The world’s going through some very dark days.  You’ve got to be careful” (10).  Louise has a more sympathetic view of the boy, but she nonetheless also describes him in terms of otherness; she writes in her journal that “He comes from nothing, from nowhere” and “He seems to be walking from a dream . . . I think he might be very beautiful” (16).  Beauty is not entirely redeeming for Louise, because she concludes her journal entry by saying, “I think he might be terrifying” (17).  It is no coincidence that both Louise and her father connect the boy with terror, since it turns out that the boy—Hassan—is from Syria.  Almond constantly exposes the orientalist ideas that white British people have about Syrians; Hassan even exploits these ideas by performing magic tricks for tourists’ money.  Hassan tells them that in Syria, “I perform, with the snake charmers and the acrobats and the singers and the storytellers” (73); Almond says that the tourists are “entranced by him . . . they want to be entranced by him” (73).  This is the acceptable version of the mysterious East, but more troublesome versions of the stereotype—the terrorist and the refugee—are also lurking.  Hassan asks Louise if she thinks of him as a refugee and the question “embarrasses” her because she “doesn’t know” the answer (59).  Hassan questions Louise’s father’s new girlfriend directly as well: “Do you think I am one of those people? Because of Syria and my skin.  That I was in London with my knife? That I am a terrorist come to Lindisfarne with dreams of slaughter?” (85-86).  Almond’s island is a microcosm of white British (and American—Louise’s father’s girlfriend is from Missouri) attitudes toward Syrians and Middle Easterners

But Almond also shows us—literally—a different picture.  Two different pictures, in fact.  One is Louise’s childhood drawing, still preserved, in the upside-down boat which has been turned into a shed that comes with the cottage they return to every year.  Louise looks for the drawing upon her arrival, “the pencil drawing I made when I was four, the three of us in an upside-down boat surrounded by moons and stars . . . Dad calls it my cave painting, created in a distant past, at the very birth of the world” (18).  This “cave painting,” connecting Louise with wildness, contrasts with Hassan’s very modern picture—a photograph that he shows her, evidence that Syrians too are connected with Lindisfarne.  The photographer, Hassan’s father, took the picture of Louise and her parents years ago.  Hassan’s pilgrimage is to a place that he, like Louise, belongs to, its wild and civilized parts, its modern and its ancient.  In typical poetic fashion, Almond breaks down stereotypes and connects humanity through the timelessness of nature.  At the end of the book Louise kisses Hassan, at the same time imagining, not just herself in the upside-down boat, but “all of us . . . all the living and the dead, all carried upside down through the astounding stars” (119).  Island is a hopeful small book that takes readers into the wild—and into the diverse and astounding world.