Toni Morrison, 1931-2019

The Nobel Laureate, Toni Morrison, has died at the age of
88. She was educated at Howard and Cornell Universities​, going on to work as an academic, critic and
activist as well as one of the most influential novelists of her own and subsequent
generations. For her writing, she won the Pulitzer Prize
for Literature in 1988​
and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993.

Morrison’s
body of work is concerned with how the unvoiced, the silent and the invisible of history
bear witness to and give testimony about their
suffering and oppression.

This leads us to consider how
subsequent generations incorporate the memory of their ancestor’s suffering
into their own histories and how they make sense of the present with those
histories in mind.

Morrison’s
best known novel is Beloved, published in 1987.

That Beloved has at
least two presents prompts the reader to consider how the past acts on the
present and how the traumatic events experienced
in one can be both supressed and revealed by memory in the
other.  

Throughout the novel, Sethe struggles
with memory as a site upon which the horrors of slavery must be both ‘beaten
back’ and negotiated in the present. 

The horrors of slavery are inscribed upon
the bodies of slaves, and so their corporeal, bodily presence in the
world stands as its own testament to their suffering. 

The beating that Sethe receives for
sending her children to safety, the tree that is inscribed on her back by the
whip, is a physical manifestation of the scars of slavery. Many other physical
scars – including where the saw cut Beloved’s throat – manifest themselves in
this narrative. 

But it is the mental and emotional
scars that are Morrison’s primary concern and the capacity of the tramautised
individual and community to come to terms with brutality
and suffering. 

A book about slavery read by millions
of people, studied on a majority of English degrees across the world, puts
slavery at the centre of a cultural debate in a way that politicians and
campaigners had not been able to.

It does so by humanising the suffering
that had affected so many millions of people. The novel tracks the individual
experience of an institution that was industrial in its scale, economic in its
organisation and supported by federal legislation 

The novel itself emerged from a
fragment of history that Morrison encountered while researching a book of blacks on
record – in print, song, newspapers, photographs – a sort of informal history. 

She found newspaper accounts of Margaret
Garner who
killed her child to prevent her being returned to slavery by vigilante slave
hunters. The event was immortalised in Thomas Satterwhite Noble’s
1867 painting, The Modern Medea.

The book is almost symmetrical, balanced around the
revelation of the incident at the very centre of the narrative – the
infanticide  

Morriosn doesn’t use partial revelations, hints and subtle
developments as conventional aspects of literary suspense, though. Instead, she
uses these evasions to signal both the unimaginable sadness of the event and
the nature of Sethe’s subsequent relation to it – she can neither
forget what she has done to her child, but neither can she bring herself
to recall it. Memory must be a battle between supressing and memorialising. 

There is another motivation to this structure of repetitions
and developments. One of the ways in which the slaves communicate with each
other is through song. Owners and overseers see these songs as the rhythms of
work and a sign of a happy slave population, but they are radical challenges to
the authority of the oppressor, carrying messages of potential escape as well
of support for those who can bear their condition no longer.

Slave spirituals, as the songs became known, have a pattern
of repetitions and developments, of call and response. It has become a
signature for expression and representation in African American culture. You
find the cadences of call and response everywhere in black American culture;
from gospel and blues, to preaching, to the rhetoric of black political leaders.

Morrison did a great deal to raise the voice of African
Americans through difficult times, but her presence at Obama’s inauguration
demonstrated how influential her own has been in giving voice to the unvoiced.
Her novels remain as a lasting testament to her influence and genius. 

Faber Short Story Review – Mrs Fox by Sarah Hall

“She is standing on the kitchen table, an unmistakable silhouette, cut from the wild” (Hall, 2019, pg.17). Hall’s prize-winning, magical realist short story Mrs Fox (2013) is based on the short novel by David Garnett Lady into Fox (1922), published just seven years after Kafka’s famous story of human-to-animal transformation, Metamorphosis.  Like the texts of a century earlier, Hall’s story is set within the mundane domestic realm and raises many questions about the status of our humanness, our humanity, and our animality.  However, it offers an update insofar as it also raises pertinent questions about our relationship with the natural realm, and our position as animals within a global ecosystem undergoing rapid alteration.  These themes permeate the work of Sarah Hall (b.1974, Cumbria) who has written five novels and two collections of short stories. Mrs Fox is an excellent avenue into Hall’s work as the 36-page story represents not only her skill and writerly tone but also her recurrent themes: nature and our place within it, the wildness within, and the experience of living in a female body (in this case, one which is not even human). Following on from reading Mrs Fox, you might consider reading one of Hall’s short story collections, or one of her novels: in particular, the eco-dystopian The Carhullan Army (2007) or her historical debut novel, Haweswater (2002), are highly recommended. 

Dr. Melanie Ebdon.

A standing ovation for a musical tale of industrial strife and brass bands

The New Vic Theatre in North Staffordshire has a proud tradition of politically and socially engaged drama that reflects the lives of the communities it serves. Under its founding artistic director, Peter Cheeseman, the theatre has created a series of original productions which both documented and dramatised the industrial struggles of the area. The Knotty, their first documentary theatre production, traced the lives of railwaymen on line which served the 6 towns of the Potteries. Later documentary plays, employing what became known as the Stoke Method, sent the cast out into the community to interview people directly involved in the events being portrayed. I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire recorded the lives of the Roses of Swynnerton working in a local munitions factory in WW2. The Fight for Shelton Bar, perhaps the most innovative documentary, traced the battle between British Steel and the workers over the future of a steel works in the city as it happened, with updates from the unions committee at the end of each show. The struggles over the mining industry in the area were portrayed in Nice Girls, the account of 4 women occupying Trentham Colliery a decade after the strike of 1984. More recently, Maxine Peake’s Queens of the Coal Age dramatised similar events in the Lancashire coalfield.

The Vic’s current production is a stage version of the hit 1994 film, Brassed Off. A decade after the strike, the miners of Grimley face an existential threat to the their livelihoods and their community as the Coal Board offer them £23000 each to accept closure now, or take a lesser payout later on. At the same time, the colliery band are on the verge of their greatest achievement ever, with the chance to play in the National Finals at the Royal Albert Hall. But can you have a colliery band without a colliery? The play traces the effects of community divisions and poverty on real people in an environment that they can neither predict nor control, as well as the solidarity and identity that music and community can generate.

Images courtesy of the New Vic

Director Conrad Nelson expertly blends the cast with the amazing TCTC brass band and community actors. The cast is so strong that its is impossible to pick one out for particular praise. I remember The Daily Mail describing the film as (something along the lines of) over-sentimental, anti-Thatcher propaganda – now that’s the sort of thing that gets an audience on their feet round here.

English Graduate Launches His New Play

Staffs Uni English graduate, Ed Hilton, is launching his
play, Pit Boy to Prime Minister, at the New Vic Theatre on May 25th.

The play follows the life of Staffordshire miner, Joseph
Cook, who left Silverdale for Australia in 1885. After working in mining there,
he became involved in Labour Party politics and progressed from the New South
Wales State Assembly to become Prime Minister of Australia in 1913.

Ed is seen here with Malcolm Henson from North Staffordshire Press and the script.

Ed graduated from Staffs in 2017 before going on to do a Masters at Keele. Once his play has been realised on the stage, Ed intends to go in to teaching where his background in both English and Creative Writing will help to enthuse a whole new generation of literature scholars.

Our warmest congratulations go to Ed.

Alumni news

English graduate, Jack Hawkins, recently met Bret Easton Ellis at the book tour to promote his new novel, White. Jack got his taste for BEE reading American Psycho on the Contemporary American Fiction module.

Jack writes: “I’m enjoying White. It’s part memoir, part diatribe against political correctness, safe spaces and the ‘cult of likability’. His perspectives on film and writing American Psycho are interesting, too. A lot of it has been taken from his Patreon podcast.

There’s a great article in The Guardian about the publication of the recent book. It’s interesteing to read about the circles Ellis was moving in during the 1980s. He knew Jay McInerney (Bright Lights, Big City), Tama Janowitz (Slaves of New York) and Jonathan Lethem (Motherless Brooklyn) – all great writers and books.

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/apr/28/bret-easton-ellis-millennials-white-interview

Let us know your news.

The Big Read

Students from Stoke on Trent high schools visited the university to celebrate their entries to the Sentinel Big Read competition. All year 9 pupils in the city received a book of cartoons inspired by childhood reads, and the Big Read competition continued the theme.

Pupils visiting the uni for the presentation of prizes took part in Masterclasses from Comic Arts and Creative Writing. Thanks to 2nd year students Jordan and Romisa who helped the pupils create characters for new stories.

Congratulations to everyone who took part, was nominated or won a prize.

Read more here https://www.stokesentinel.co.uk/news/stoke-on-trent-news/meet-prize-winning-comic-strip-2745293

2nd Year Trip to Gladstone Pottery Museum

Students on the Victorian literature module visited the Gladstone Pottery Museum in Longton to learn about Dickensian working conditions and the pottery industry of Arnold Bennett’s Anna of the Five Towns. A guided tour from one of the museum’s experts helped contextualise child labour, working conditions, labour organisation and how pottery workers were paid, along with many other things. This picture shows students outside one of the distinctive bottle ovens which feature across Stoke’s cityscape.

Many thanks to the School of Creative Arts and Engineering for financially supporting the trip.

Much Ado about World War 2

Northern Broadside’s Much Ado  About Nothing, which we saw last week as part of the Shakespeare module, transplants the action to WW2 England. Beatrice becomes a land girl, in wellies and sensible tweed, while Benedick is in the uniform of the RAF. Robin Simpson and Isobel Middleton in these roles absolutely steal the show, but they are wonderfully supported by a cast which brings the play to life. Alongside the verbal jousting between the will-they-won’t they central characters which characterises Shakepeare’s romantic comedies, there are delightful interludes of big band jazz, barber shop quartets, dancing and camp comedy.

The Guardian, in a 4 star (out of 5) review, describes how the company make ‘dynamic use of the in-the-round space and, for all the Dad’s Army daftness, venture boldly into the play’s darker corners of treachery and deceit’.

picture courtesy of Northern Broadsides

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War – The British Library, special exhibition.

Listen! And I will tell you of the best of exhibitions that I saw in London yesterday…

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War at the British Library. This exhibition will end on February 19th, so I urge you to go along as soon as you can – its like will never be seen again in your lifetime. Full price tickets are £16, concessions available, booking in advance of your trip is essential.  For bookings, visit: https://www.bl.uk/events/anglo-saxon-kingdoms

Allow around 2 hours to see this exhibition – its scope and breadth are unspeakable. This is the ‘greatest hits’ of the literary life of the British Isles between the withdrawal of Rome (early 400 CE) and the Battle of Hastings (1066). The hefty 424-page exhibition catalogue (pictured here, £40 hardback) has been essential in helping me to digest the experience as it was almost too overwhelming to absorb the detail of its 180 objects.

As you may expect, the bulk of the books assembled here are Latin texts created during Britain’s early ecclesiastical culture; these were copied by scribes on vellum and richly illustrated. Preservation rates are strong in these elements of the collection as these sacred texts were cared for and then often hidden in order that they survived the Reformation. These texts are numerous, but were written for the Church, in the language of the Church. Even if they had been permitted to see one of these books, the average inhabitant of these islands would not have understood them.

For me, the real high points of the exhibition were the displays of texts written in Anglo-Saxon English (or ‘Old English’) of which there are so very few in existence: not many were ever created as Anglo-Saxons were largely illiterate, yet this was the language of the ‘common folk’ of these lands, predominantly consisting of, or descending from, Scandinavian and Germanic people who had variously invaded and settled here. As the subject-matter of these books was often more secular in nature, this tiny portion of literature has not always benefitted from the protection of the Church in the way that their contemporary Latin books have. We owe a great debt of gratitude to figures such as Sir Robert Cotton (1571-1631), an antiquarian bibliophile who collected so many texts and documents in his personal library.  The best-laid plans, however, go oft astray – a fire destroyed and degraded many of his books in 1731, at which point his collection was already highly regarded as a national treasure.

One of the texts which was partially destroyed by this fire is known as Beowulf (named retrospectively for its protagonist hero as no title is given). The best estimation is that this text was written down around 1000 CE, but it contains a tale handed down for many generations before that via the oral tradition. This is the first known ‘story’ from the British Isles: it recounts a tale of Danes and Swedes combining forces to do battle with monsters and dragons. This type of story, brought to Britain by an immigrant culture, came to form the modern-day Fantasy genre via the work of Anglo-Saxon scholar, J.R.R. Tolkien in the mid-20th century.

The exhibition sees the return to these shores of some texts which have not been seen in Britain for quite some centuries, such as the Codex Amiatinus – a gigantic illustrated bible which takes several people and a wheelbarrow to shift (Northumbria, created before 716 CE). Also experiencing a homecoming is the Vercelli Book (c. 975 CE) which contains several of the most important and profound poems in Anglo-Saxon and has been housed in Italy since the early 1100’s: the supposition is that a Pilgrim took it from Britain to Rome and never brought it back – to be fair, it does look heavy…

It’s not just religion and secular poetry on display here: the early British understanding of astronomy and medicinal remedies is on offer here too, along with maps, letters, accounts of Far-Eastern exploration and a collection of early music. These scores are accompanied by a set of headphones so that you can hear recordings of the music, which pre-dates the development of the major-minor key systems – chillingly beautiful in its modal inflections.

Fittingly, the through-flow of the exhibition terminates with The Great Domesday Book (c. 1086) which marked the Norman conquest’s full comprehension of the territory they had colonised following the Battle of Hastings. This account of every house, pig and slave in Britain sits beneath a short but helpful video by leading historians who give the circumstances of the book’s creation.

If all this isn’t enough, the exhibition is liberally studded with Anglo-Saxon ‘bling’ which adorns the walls as you move from one set of book display-cases to the next. Precious treasure from the Sutton Hoo ship burial and the Staffordshire Hoard is displayed for context – the Potteries Museum of Stoke-on-Trent is given a thankful acknowledgement as a lender to the exhibition.

The British Library has been planning this exhibition for around 7 years – it has taken this long to carefully coordinate and curate this event which has gathered together precious British books from as far afield as New York and Florence, as well as the prestigious UK collections such as are housed in the University libraries of Oxford and Cambridge – and, of course, the British Library’s own Treasures Collection. The international effort behind this exhibition corresponds with a genuine sense of the pan-European character of early Britain, and serves as a timely reminder of the fruitful nature of cultural exchange and integration – be that though the spread of Christianity from Ireland and Rome, or the multiple immigrant cultures from Northern Europe. The exhibition shows that the deeper we look into Britain’s past, the more it seems to be composed of a fascinating collage of many cultural voices.

If you like books – you really must go. If you don’t like books…. well, you really must go and see a special Doctor about that.

Photos: the front-cover of the exhibition catalogue, and its double-page spread of the richly illuminated Lindisfarne Gospels (Northumbria, c.700 CE).

Melanie Ebdon.

Harry Potter Visit

Students on the Children’s Literature module visited the Warner Bros. Studios for a tour of the Harry Potter studios near glamorous Watford. For students who are studying the Harry Potter novels as set texts, this trip was an enchanting and enlightening addition to their research and interest in the work of J.K. Rowling.
 
“I was on a train going from Manchester to London, looking out of the window at cows and I just thought “boy doesn’t know he’s a wizard goes off to wizard school”. This now-famous quotation from Rowling’s interview with Stephen Fry at the Albert Hall, 2003 is neatly paraphrased above the entrance to the exhibition and immediately situates the importance of the author and text as the foundation of this entire franchise. A display showing the creative process of adaptation, from novel to screenplay, is also emphasized in creative statements from the screenwriters and directors of the feature films. It was an invaluable insight into the creative and technical processes involved in adapting an imaginative work of literature to visual mediums– a memorable and magical experience which brings the study of literature to life.”