Hello! I'm back! It's nearly summer! Winter is over! Spring is on it's way out! Birds are singing 24/7! The sun is intermittently shining and I have finished my
BA in 'English & Related Literature'
I always try to get that 'related' bit in there when talking about what I stud(ied)y. I chose this degree for that one little word addition, 'related'. Conversations about it usually go something like this:
"Hi my name is Ailish and I study English... and Related... Literature, that part is important y'know... let me tell you why..."
Then I'm off, boring the poor soul who has to listen about why literature is so much more than just epics written by old, white, English-speaking men. But it's when I explain that,
"I wrote my dissertation on poetry written by Taliban members, no Wordsworth here, this is all guns, swords, sexism, warfare and contemporary Afghanistan,"
that things start to get a bit tense. I'll try to insinuate that Taliban poetry counts as real literature and go on to defend the individuals behind the movement as -shock horror- human beings, who are of course capable of creative expression. But I'll hear words coming out of my mouth that sound like I'm defending their brutality. I backtrack, try to make it 'relatable', I start to compare the Taliban poetry to William Wordsworth... the main themes of my whimsy argument relate to the industrial revolution, destruction of modernity, embracing of nature and so on. But lo and behold, I seem to have dug myself even further into trouble. You're on dangerous ground, Ailish, eyebrows are getting raised, you just compared a literary God to an extremist movement. Pick yourself up, untwist your tongue and quickly!
I defend the validity of reading poetry by the Taliban, I try to ensure that the person I'm talking to (who is sometimes also a student of E&RL) does not get the false impression that I defend and support the Taliban but just that I think literature is literature, whatever form it takes, whoever wrote it, and that unpopular individuals or groups have as much a right to be considered in the literary world as canonical figures. The person I'm discussing this with will usually say something like,
"but Jane Austen was ground-breaking for her time. She didn't have to be a cold-blooded murderer for her work to be considered important and canonical. Why should we give the Taliban the time of day let alone read their poetry? It will all be laced with hatred and encouraging suicide bombings and religious extremism anyway, won't it?"
Yes and no, I'll say. I'll agree with them,
"Jane Austen is important, but so are the Taliban - and maybe they are arguably even more important in today's society. There is that saying that goes something along the lines of, 'to defeat an enemy you need to know them as intimately as you would a friend'. Enemy or no enemy (depending on your opinions), don't you think everyone who shares their voice is worth at least listening to, regardless of if you agree with what they say or wholeheartedly and fundamentally disagree?"
Usually the response will be something like,
"hmm yeah I guess, but not the Taliban"
or perhaps simply,
"no, criminals just don't deserve a voice."
The latter, I think, being a somewhat hypocritical answer since there are many writers who are considered canonical but who were -or even continue to be- highly controversial.
The Taliban is a sensitive issue though and perhaps rightly so; the movement is deeply ingrained in contemporary society and recent history. Everyone knows who they think the Taliban are and most people have an opinion, - whether informed or not - of what the people behind the movement must be like. In this hypothetical (but very much, 'has occurred') conversation, I usually go on to try and defend myself, defend the poetry, defend the 'related' element of my degree and sweeten the blow with confirmation of the canon and its validity too:
"I'm not suggesting work that's considered controversial is more 'important' than Jane Austen simply because it has the shock factor, only that it is equally worthy of study and consideration. I don't agree with the actions of the Taliban but I do believe their poetry should be studied in order to gain a broader knowledge of how they think that goes beyond an uninformed stereotype. Yes, the poetry is, most of the time, shocking and brutal, but it is also fluid, creative and expressive. Many of the poems sing of the beauty of nature, of the grace of a lover and sometimes are also critical of the destruction of war as well as the influence and damage the movement has had not just in Afghanistan and Pakistan where they are situated, but globally. I am not suggesting studying Taliban poetry just to be controversial, I genuinely believe that we should want to learn more than what institutions tell us we must read if we study literature. I think we should try and look beyond texts written in English by white men or women - but mostly men - and refuse to accept that is all that there is to a literature degree. It is important to know where literature has come from, I agree with that and I decided to do this degree initially because of two inspirations. Maybe surprisingly, the first being a love for Wordsworth and Coleridge, and secondly because of a short novel: 'Anthills in the Savannah' by Chinua Achebe. In AotS, Achebe writes about corruption, modernity, dignity and hope, and it was through discovering a world of literature outside of Shakespeare & co. (though admittedly also written in English, but that is a whole other issue) that I realised my degree could be more than just a study of the traditional texts thought of as the literature. I was able to look further afield than just the Romantic Poets, Austen, Milton, Shakespeare, Dickens and the Brönte sisters. I chose E&RL because it had a broader outlook and a more diverse approach to written material beyond The Western Canon. It meant that in my first year of university I could read verbatim plays and texts written by prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. It meant that in my second year I could go abroad and write fascinating papers on trans* people in countries where anything 'queer' is considered punishable by death and because I could choose to research and write on the power of protest art in relation to the abuses of prisoners in Abu Ghraib. And finally, I chose my degree because in my last year I was encouraged and given the freedom to do my dissertation on poetry by the Taliban without being told it is not worthy of study within the framework of a degree in literature."
I think studying and understanding literature is not really about judging the worth of writers though, it is about informing ourselves; to learn in order to know, and to know in order to act with a less bias or ignorant view of individuals and cultures. I am not suggesting that I 'know it all', of course nobody can always be partial and fully researched into all facets of every kind of literature. However, I think my degree allowed me to make a few steps in a more open and understanding direction because I've been given the freedom to experience literature written by all kinds of people, canonical and non-canonical. I defend studying Taliban poetry because I think it is right to be challenged - the poems make us question justice and reconsider our own interpretations of it. By pushing our preconceptions we can understand the Taliban on a more human level; the poetry can be controversial and shocking, but it can also be beautiful and believe it or not... relatable.
If you've made it this far, I suppose I can update you on the life-admin front: things are just chugging along quietly. I'm filling my days with reading, drawing, researching, applying, chatting, eating, sleeping, searching for jobs and becoming an eBay-selling queen. I was the first of my friends and housemates to finish (they all do much more serious ;-) degrees which involve long exams...) so I've mostly been quiet and not requesting evenings out because they're all working hard to finish up. Saying that, it's just Phillip left now and he'll be done with his last exam on Thursday so obviously that's when the party will start. By party I mean playing music a wee bit louder in the kitchen and maybe, maybe, going to the pub for a couple of beers if the time is right (no Willow going down here...!) I kid, it's going to be great because the sun is popping in and out (better than none at all, #amiright?) and we're in York for a few more weeks, only the best city in the North.
Oh, and we're moving to Berlin at the end of the summer, that was unexpected eh? SOAS is deferred until next year and we are currently looking for places to live and deciding how to move all our stuff over... so many options, all so expensive... car hire? boxes shipped? removal company (we don't have that much stuff), suitcases and flying...? Reckon we're just going to sell a lot of things and move over with what we need, maybe post one or two boxes, then bring stuff bit by bit. Serious life changes coming, but for now, some fun is going to be had, enough talk of the Taliban for today.