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.’

‘Take your broken heart…’ What happens when tears fuel art

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The most common question people ask when I tell them I’m writing a book is:

‘What’s it about?’

So I say:

A journalist goes to Madrid and discovers that the death of a celebrity is not what it seems.

‘But what’s it really about?’ The bookish or the curious inquire.

Trying to describe a deeper ‘Story’ is much harder. Like hinting at the essence of a song.

‘It’s a Mystery. With some thriller turns.’ doesn’t really do it, for a novel’s ‘big idea’ is something like its soul. Hard to put into words.

Last week a relative asked me the same question. I managed, in the end, to share the idea.

‘My book, I hope, will be about mourning.’

Dear reader, before you close this page, run out the room or start yawning, there will -fear not – be a plot.

But what I had in mind, beneath the action, is this:

It’s about what happens when we don’t grieve our losses – not just of loved ones – but the smaller deaths of everyday: disappointments, old resentments, pains, misunderstandings. How something softens when we allow ourselves to cry, the walls inside come down. And generation by generation there may be no progress until we fully mourn the difficulties of our own – and collective – past. 

Sadness is not fashionable. Public crying in Western culture is still taboo. Last year I spent some time in the UK and I remember speaking on the phone while sitting in a cafe, with tears streaming down my face. My sadness was soundless but the couple on the sofa in front of me stood up like they’d sat on a scorpion. They balanced their newspapers and their lattes, awkwardness seeping from their brows, and legged it.

The idea of facing and feeling sorrow can frighten folk, but I like to think of our histories – however wonderful or painful (often both)- as a hidden alchemy.

Much of the time it stays buried, beneath our habits and opinions. It lodges with the child we left behind. But when acknowledged and used right, it can change lives. The Midas touch of tears has the power to transform past pain into the greatest art on earth.

During his long and creative life, the German composer JS Bach suffered loss on almost a permanent basis. Both parents died when he was young, then an older brother. And in 1721, his other brother, the one who had brought him up, fell ill and passed away.

His beloved wife Maria followed, leaving him with many young children.

What did Bach do?

He wrote the Goldberg variations. A language through which he felt and shared life’s joy and pain. A vehicle for his grief.

The novels of Thomas Hardy are not for the fainthearted but read his poetry and you’ll meet a different man. In his ‘Poems 1912-13’ on the death of his wife Emma Gifford, it’s Hardy’s tears which touch the reader.

Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me

Saying that now you are not as you were

When you had changed from the one who was all to me,

But as at first when our day was fair.

Can it be you that I hear? Let me view you, then… From The Voice, by Thomas Hardy, December 1912

Grief has many guises. It is said that the Prophet of Islam would often walk with his face moist, that he cried easily. Babies and children don’t need to be told to let it out when they feel pain.

But what about men and women? I wonder what would happen if crying became not only socially acceptable but encouraged. After all, laughing is, so why not its watery cousin? How cleansed we might feel from our collective past. How avoidable the repetitions, addictions, tyrannies borne of buried grief.

Trapped unconscious energy makes us bend into weird shapes which aren’t who we are at all. In the world it burns bridges, fuels wars, builds walls so wide we cannot see each other anymore. We cannot see ourselves.

When traumatised holocaust survivors formed the state of Israel, successive governments unconsciously began the re-enactment  of a torture that they, or their parents had endured in 1930/40s Europe. The persecution of their fellow land-dwellers continues to this day because the personal work of the traumatised, the act of mourning has not properly taken place.

At the recent golden globes, Meryl Streep spoke about the tragedy for the Arts in the United States that is the new president. But fully mourning such ill-fortune could transform it to something else. It was her friend, Carrie Fisher who said :

‘Take your broken heart, turn it into art,’

Art could mean anything here: work, energy, scientific endeavour but it’s the process between the broken heart and its product that matters. It’s the very act of crying that opens the floodgates to renewal. The river which may take us – and those with us – to a very different place.

 

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How are you nurturing your creative mind?

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Some months ago, after the holiday of Eid, my brother-in-law went away on a trip and my mother-in-law (who shares the building with him) stayed home. Omani culture likes to swathe ageing parents with visits and chat, and so my husband and I moved into her house for two nights.

I awoke on the first day feeling like it was a holiday. Sunlight poured through an unfamiliar curtain. The smells of morning were fresh paint, cleaning products, Eid desserts on a trolley.

A break from life’s routines.

People talk and write of ‘beginner’s mind,’. Something like this it felt. As though I had stepped out of habit and into a fresh reality to learn.

I don’t know what happens to brain cells when they are shown new places but it can feel, I think, like the opening of a parachute. The plodding walk of everyday takes flight, as though the mind has had to lift to learn what’s new and taken the whole self with it.

Beginner’s mind can be a tool for imagination.  Free from memory, there is the chance to test ideas, break rules, find untapped resource. So I have been asking myself how it might be used in the service of creativity:

  • go for a walk most days . But a walk with beginner’s mind awakened, as the M&S advert goes, is not just any walk. It’s headed somewhere new. With music, without sound, listening to the birds, taking a path up and off the normal track. Trying new things so the body and brain might enter a free space, to flick the switch which says experiment.
  • Travel can have the same effect. Finding new cafes, shops, spaces, meeting new people can also do the trick. Shaking the brain cells out of their collective habits. Sometimes really focusing on another person’s way of seeing the world can cultivate beginner’s mind for me. It too is a brand new place.
  • ‘Habit is the great deadener’ said Samuel Beckett. Certain routines are unavoidable, but I have found removing the ones which clutter the mind can create freedom. Habits which are relatively easy to quit and whose pay off I have found to be big in terms of mental space: Mindless phone/Twitter/Facebook scrolling, googling too much, saying Yes to things I don’t want to do. All of these can clog creative energy.
  • Taking photos brings in the here and now. A camera (or phone camera) can be a physical reminder to be present, to notice.
  • Trying new recipes has been for me one of the simplest ways to access beginner’s mind. The faith required to follow new instructions (or invent one’s own) can create tangible – often edible – results (!) and it’s a great break from writing.

We had barely driven for twenty minutes, stayed away 48 hours when I left my mother-in-law’s house with renewed purpose. Beginner’s mind is powerful, so open that ideas can’t help but wander in.

How do you nurture your mind to stay creative?

The ink of ideas: is ‘showing up’ enough?

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‘I’m against schedules. Write when you feel excited by the prospect.’ (Rick Moody)

‘Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too.’ (Isabel Allende)

 

Who are we to believe? Those who make a muse of ‘inspiration’  or the grafters who turn up at the writing desk, rain or shine, like bank clerks to their counters?

Last year when I began work on my novel I joined the write-whether-you-feel-inspired-or-not school of thought, believing that if I waited for inspiration each day, I may never write at all. At least if I ‘showed up’ and didn’t like what I wrote, I could cut it later.

Sometimes ideas need to be caught before they fly off again, as Elizabeth Gilbert describes in this wonderful part of her TED talk: here (Thanks Mari for the reminder).

‘Showing up’ is the commitment necessary to make inspiration real. Without the grounding nature of routine, ideas, in my experience, stay floating, like untethered balloons. Last year, working on my novel occasionally felt dull or really difficult, sometimes both (!) but as long as I still cared enough about my initial idea, it fueled what I wrote each day.

I still subscribe to this routine although – I imagine, like anyone who makes things –   I can only ‘show up’ if I already have an idea, not a plan of the minutiae of everyday writing but a bigger concept which carries the work through. (Short of a big idea, I’ll do something else for a while.)  For when inspiration arrives, it becomes like a flock of birds moving in formation. The job, then, is to get that divine pattern down on paper, typing daily until it’s done (‘show up, show up!’)

Ideas are writing’s ink, its flow, the breath which supports movement. If there is ink in the well, the pen will find a way to keep on writing.

What part do ideas and ‘showing up’ play in your creative life? Please feel free to comment below…

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