On Tuesday 20th January, we welcomed Claire Chambers to the University of Edinburgh to give an overview of the history of Muslim representations of Britain.
It was invigorating both to have a lecture on a topic so close to my own research, and to give fellow postgraduate students a chance to hear more about my area. The topic of British Muslim writing has obvious weight in the wake of the contemporary global movements of people and horrific events done in the name of Islam both in Europe and around the world. There is an almost continual stream of journalism on these topics. Within and outside universities, I find the reaction to hearing my PhD topic is usually of interest and understanding of its significance, which I appreciate as anyone in the humanities will know how difficult it can be to justify your research to others. But the question is how can we understand this ‘relevance’ beyond the correlation between literary research and global political events?
Of course the genre or category in itself is not automatically accepted by scholars and writers alike. It’s hotly contested as we can see with the title of Chamber’s British Muslim Fictions, a play on the word ‘fictions’ showing us that the genre isn’t clear cut. The category does not comfortably fit into postcolonial studies either, as most contemporary texts have little to do with colonial or decolonising processes, or indeed first generation postcolonial migration.
I would argue that the most exciting part of the area of British Muslim fiction and film (and fiction and film by authors of ‘Muslim heritage’) is how it works intersectionally. ‘Intersectionality’ is a buzz word in scholarly writing for how different ‘isms’ (gender, race, class, religion, sexuality, etc) are linked, as arguably one cannot examine each separately. Avtar Brah calls this the ‘situatedness’ of a group within a wide range of discourses, which is central to understanding how regimes of power differentiate one group from another. Not all theorists agree on this. Jasbir K. Puar, for instance, destabilises the notion of intersectionality on the basis that fixed identity markers are incompatible with the fluidity of people’s identities over the entire course of their lives. Nonetheless, it is still relevant to look at certain types of identity in relation to each other, whilst acknowledging the fluid quality of these attributes.
Possibly because of the pressures on authors and filmmakers of Muslim heritage to engage with social issues, this genre of work is particularly good at asking questions of other ‘isms’ and highlighting the interconnectedness of different aspects of identity and context. In this series, we are focusing on the intersection between national and local identities and religious/ethnic identity. It was important for us to stress this specificity of perspective in an era where generalising about Islam and Muslims is rife. This particular perspective is symbolic of the multifarious and dynamic representations of Muslims in literature and there are many different possible avenues. For instance, both Peter and I work on the particular issues of gender, and these seem inseparable from other aspects of identity such as class and race.
By the same train of thought, the situatedness of the reader, the scholar and the critic is important. Chambers’ stressed the importance of positionality in her talk by explaining how she came to the field whilst also acknowledging her position as a non-Muslim. This resonates with both Peter and I as we are both non-Muslim and working on literature and film by and about Muslims in Britain. It is clear we have to acknowledge our positions as critics and researchers if we are to avoid the trap of speaking on behalf of minority groups and individuals. But this does not mean that we should avoid studying cultures that are not necessarily ‘ours’, in fact such a claim would render a fair amount of research invalid. Hopefully it evidences how engaging this particular body of work is to researchers of different backgrounds.
You can listen to Claire Chambers’ talk here: http://www.ed.ac.uk/schools-departments/literatures-languages-cultures/alwaleed/resources/podcasts
Join us on 3rd February at 5.30pm for a reading with acclaimed author Leila Aboulela in the Project Room, 50 George Square, University of Edinburgh.
– Sibyl Adam