‘Passing my voice into theirs’
in Bad English
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Chapter four focuses on British Asian poet Daljit Nagra, whose poetry plays – often riskily – with ideas of linguistic authenticity and performance, and the racialised voice. As this chapter argues, his highly stylised British Punjabi poetic personae play out self-consciously against a backdrop of British linguistic racism, from the ‘racist television programming’ of the 1970s and 1980s to contemporary stigmatisation of South Asian languages in political and popular discourse. Nagra casts his work as that of ‘reclamation’, reinstituting complexity, depth, and ambivalence to performed voices that are nevertheless works of mimicry, haunted by the legacies of British racism. The constant question in Nagra’s poetry, this chapter suggests, is that of linguistic provenance: where words come from, what histories they carry with them, the potentiality and peril of using language which is in Bakhtin’s terms always ‘half someone else’s’. Nagra’s poems unsettle English, with a particular emphasis on how the English language, and the contemporary multilingualism against which it is often antagonistically pitted, are equally products of a shared colonial and imperial history.

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