Book Review: ‘Natives – Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire’ by Akala

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Blogger’s note: I first read this inspirational book when it came out, two years ago. It feels even more relevant now.

Summer 2018

You may know Akala through his rap music. Or perhaps you’ve heard him on television speak on issues such as race, class or multicultural Britain. I came to Akala through Shakespeare: ‘Romeo and Juliet’ to teach to a class of fourteen-year-olds. I was looking online for a starter, something to ease us in.

A TED talk appeared: Akala, on stage asking the audience to identify the author of various lines. Were they written by Renaissance poet and playwright, William Shakespeare, or rappers from the modern age?

The audience were buzzed. As Akala spoke out the lyrics, it became harder and harder to tell: Was this iambic pentameter? And if it was, who was more likely to use it – a 16th century white bard of the English literary canon or the Wu-Tang Clan?

The effect on the class was electric. Suddenly Shakespeare wasn’t stuck in the past, but current. The beauty of his language paralleled by some of the great contemporary poets of our age – rappers, spoken word artists – beside whom Akala had raised him.

To call Akala’s new – first – book, ‘Natives – Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire’ a polemic, as some have already suggested, may be to underestimate the scope of his work. ‘Natives’ is a challenging book. It pokes at the parts of British society which we prefer to push under the carpet, or periodically glorify through sport or nostalgia or public parade. Namely, our history as colonial oppressor and the effect it has had, not only on our relationship to ‘race’ in the UK but also on the inequities within the British class system.

Part personal biography, interwoven with an exploration of British society and its history, ‘Natives’ manages to marry a retrograde look at the writer’s own life with a deeply incisive examination of the history of class and race in the UK.

The strength of the book lies in the writer’s almost forensic self and societal examination, his need to know, share and understand the forces which have both formed him and threatened to destroy his life and that of those around him.

Kingslee James Daley (later, self-named, Akala) born into a working class North London family, with a Scottish mother and Jamaican father, places his own experience at the centre of the narrative. Early in the book he outlines why he has rooted his intellectual arguments in the context of his own history; this book will not pretend to be objective because even the most stringent academic study is not so. We are, all of us, standing somewhere on this Earth, with our own perspective. And Akala’s is enlightening.

His story is one of struggle – in that he has survived an early childhood of financial hardship, familial split, sustained racism from school and society while also managing in large part to transcend these difficulties as a well-known rapper, poet and political activist.

It is also a story of cultural enrichment:

‘I went to mathematics masterclasses,’ ‘I spent time in the black bookstore and outside of Dalston station debating politics with the nation of Islam,’ ‘I visited my great-grandfather’s grave and got a real sense of my family heritage.’

Akala refuses to oversimply, eschewing stock ideas or pat generalisations on the subject of race and class in 80s and 90s Britain in favour of honesty.

‘My schooling, like everything else in my life it seemed, was an entanglement of contradictions.’

The racism of one teacher towards the young Akala is harsh and overt.

‘Now I felt only rage and hurt. I knew that she did not like black people but I had not fully grasped the extent and depth of her hatred before that day.’

So acute is this writer’s memory, his skill in laying bare the facts of his existence, that he is able to carry the reader into a world that many in Britain would have witnessed only as bystanders, unaware of the personal and lifelong implications of such pervasive injustice.

On the nature of covert – often unconscious – oppression, Akala is outstanding. It is not just institutionalised racism which was born of our imperial past, he argues, but the divisions of class which have been scored more deeply, creating a society not only of haves and have nots, but one which blames those who try to break out from such a set-up.

As its title suggests, Akala’s book ascribes many of our current societal ills to the continued presence in British daily life of our imperial history:

‘…its legacies are so clear and visible and because unlike the Spanish, Portuguese, German or Japanese Empires it still sort of exists, albeit in attenuated form as second fiddle to the American Empire, despite what our free press likes to pretend.’

It is Britain’s acceptance of ‘hierarchical difference’ which is the book’s main beef against this legacy:

‘The fact remains: no one colonises another group of people out of love for them.’

And here lies the core of his argument. The appalling injustice still inherent in a society which seems incapable of looking back and owning its colonial past.

This book reads as an extended request for reflection. About suppressed narratives, and the dangers of typecasting social groups based on the responses of a minority of people to injustice.

‘Natives’ might serve as a helpful primer for a forgetful nation on the subject of its own history and identity. An opportunity to examine the wrongs of the past, the human rights violated by a knee-jerk failure to address the subject of British imperialism and its modern-day effects on people of all backgrounds, particularly those at the sharp end of societal injustice.

Akala’s book is a red flag, an extended song of protest, in this current ‘Brexit/’post-Brexit’ era. It asks us to examine some of the most basic notions about who we are – as the ‘English’, as Brits – as a people, and how we might decide to move forward towards a more reflective and equitable society, given our imperial past.

Beyond the soundbites of a disappointing national debate about Europe, ‘Natives’ could serve as a springboard to a proper discussion in a country in need of deepening its engagement with ideas around race and immigration, social class and access for all to the basic and cultural resources our isles have to offer.

It’s time we Brits talked about our history – not just kings and queens or how we won the war but the other parts: the shame of plunder and forced governance, the truth of what it means to have been the coloniser. This author has provided the perfect platform from which to begin. In the words of the writer who took me to Akala’s work in the first place:

‘Do it, England.’

Book Review: What Doesn’t Kill You: Fifteen Stories of Survival

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‘What Doesn’t Kill You,’ is an anthology of short stories and a couple of philosophical essays centred on a single theme: adversity.

Its contributors are authors, journalists and figures from the British media, and the topics it covers are broad.

I enjoyed reading ‘What Doesn’t Kill You,’ for a number of reasons but not for the ones I was expecting. If you love – as I do – to leaf through the overcoming of hardship – the long-earned joyful walk to all kinds of personal victories – then this may not be the book for you.

This anthology, travels, instead – to borrow a term from Pilgrim’s Progress – to a series of  ‘sloughs of despond,’ personal difficulties which its writers have experienced and then invites us to take a look around. This may sound bleak – and many of the tales here are predictably dark – but there is also something deeply connecting in reading of another person’s ‘Struggle’, ‘Self’ and ‘Striving’ (the titles of each section of this anthology) without necessarily learning of their happy ending.

Indeed, despite the occasional musings on personal transformation and some beautiful philosophical insights on what it means to be human (the elliptical title of the anthology is borrowed from Nietzsche), this anthology could not be classed  as ‘uplift lit.’ Healing, or even transcendence of past pain is not the focus of this collection.

This said, the writing (and editing by Elitsa Dermendzhiyska) is fabulous. There are  breathtaking lines to take away – language which takes us closer to what it feels like when life’s sharpness moves us to the edge.

The exquisite surrealism of Irenosen Okojie’s ‘Three Wise Women’ is a huge treat –

‘I sat in train carriages watching for a far-flung white calla lily to manifest from a rip in a seat.’

Okojie’s storytelling is utterly compelling – poetic and precise – and her descriptions of ‘winter’ searing in the way which they evoke the alienation of an anxious mind.

Alex Christophi’s piece, which is both of the mind and rooted in the flesh, takes us through the recreation of memory and its accompanying thoughts. His words on coming back to present stillness are arresting:

‘…when they finally stop running, they can actually feel the world spinning.’

 

The meditations on ‘disappearance’ which appeared throughout this anthology were also a thrill to read:

In Ed Mitchell’s story of alcohol addiction, ‘Not Wasted’ where he describes how he went from an affluent lifestyle as a television presenter to living on the streets of Hove, he writes:

‘I disappeared for a year: a sea front ghost.’

‘A Disappearing Act’ by Kate Leaver is a moving account of overcoming an eating disorder, clear-sighted on what it meant to withdraw from ‘the act of living my life’. She writes:

‘It was my best effort to vanish.’

And I particularly liked Hazel Gale’s exploration of leaving one’s own body in ‘The Last Fight’. Her disappearance (and later re-appearance) in her own physical reality, is the story of reclaiming her personhood:

‘What I’d been calling the Self was forged solely of what I thought was required of me by the Other.’

Memory’s disappearance is acutely studied in Emily Reynold’s ‘My Unremembered Life’:

‘Trauma simultaneously erases memory and rewrites it,’

while Elitsa Dermendzhiyska’s tale of using economic theory to try to make uncertainty vanish from her daily life, lured by the ‘promise of an underlying order’ contains great beauty in its truth and vulnerability.

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Peppered throughout this collection are nuggets of inspiration, on our personal agency in not just surviving adversity, but the ways in which we might exist in its wake:

‘If I don’t want to go back to prison,’ writes Cathy Rentzenbrink, on tending to herself sensitively in recovery from PTSD, ‘I have to make sure I keep the conditions of my bail.’ and for each of these writers – and for many of us – this keeping out of the ‘prison’ of self-protective suffering might look quite different.

Ben Saunders explores the futility of ‘striving’ in the last section of the anthology, through his piece ‘A Very Long Walk in a Very Cold Place.’ His is a gripping real-life adventure to the North Pole full of grit and grimness, where the true prize cannot be gained externally.

Nature is also at the forefront of A.J. Ashworth’s ‘Eight.’ Facts and images of the sun weave beguilingly through this powerful account of living with panic attacks.

The stories in ‘What Doesn’t Kill You’ neither sugarcoat nor glamourize the difficulties encountered by its authors. There is courage in these very personal tales, many as raw as the pain they’ve endured.

Rory Bremner’s essay is a beautiful description of living life with ADHD, both sensible in its advice to those experiencing similar, and celebratory of the wealth of expression he feels the condition has brought him. His refusal to see ADHD as a problem, instead as a part of himself to be loved, is key to the way that he chooses to live.

In his essay ‘No Cure For Life,’ Julian Baggini takes a characteristically rationalist approach to suffering, shunning the notion of the ‘happy ending’ sold to us by self-help evangelists. He observes the uneven way in which life’s slings and arrows appear to be handed out, and seems to underscore some of the thoughts of M. Scott Peck in his seminal book, The Road Less Travelled:

‘Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths.’ 

However in Peck’s book he goes on to say:

‘It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it.’

While ‘What Doesn’t Kill You’ isn’t generally about transcending the adversity it portrays – it reads more as a panorama of lived experience –  the gems contained within make it well-worth a look.

I loved the style of Lily Bailey’s ‘The Lily Show’ and found her stream of consciousness sentences a brilliant vehicle into the hellish reality she employs to keep her safe.

‘Maybe…they’ll smash through the set walls and rescue me..’

This is as real an account of mental illness and its attendant isolation that I have ever read.

But what I loved most about ‘What Doesn’t Kill You’ is that it points to other books as safe crossings and scaffolds when life gets tricky. There are some great book recommendations here – from JD Salinger to Clarissa Pinkola Estés – so many of the writers in this anthology finding solace in the printed page.

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It has indeed been my own experience that there is a deep hopefulness in the occupation of reading – in seeing the story of another played out and repurposed purely for our benefit – which can be like a hand-hold through life’s sometime rough terrain.

‘Reading was, as ever, an ally in taking my mind away from itself,’

writes Cathy Rentzenbrink.

And it is this which makes ‘What Doesn’t Kill You’, a valuable book shelf addition; each of these 15 pieces – while simultaneously distracting us – draws us closer to our own humanity, especially in this time of societal introspection.

It is always hard to believe that the courageous step is so close to us,’ writes David Whyte at the start of the anthology, and in celebrating the beauty and plurality of each of these writers’ challenging life experiences, ‘What Doesn’t Kill You’ empowers us to find our own possible steps when life feels like a struggle.

 

What Doesn’t Kill You is published by Unbound, available to purchase here (among other outlets) from 11th June 2020. 

This blog recommends pairing this book with the 1978 classic, The Road Less Travelled by M. Scott Peck, a book about fulfillment based on the author’s experiences as a psychiatrist and as a person.

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