At a time when monolingualist claims for the importance of ‘speaking English’ to the national order continue louder than ever, even as language diversity is increasingly part of contemporary British life, literature becomes a space to consider the terms of linguistic belonging. Bad English examines writers including Tom Leonard, James Kelman, Suhayl Saadi, Raman Mundair, Daljit Nagra, Xiaolu Guo, Leila Aboulela, Brian Chikwava, and Caroline Bergvall, who engage multilingually, experimentally, playfully, and ambivalently with English’s power. Considering their invented vernaculars and mixed idioms, their dramatised scenes of languaging – languages learned or lost, acts of translation, scenes of speaking, the exposure and racialised visibility of accent – it argues for a growing field of contemporary literature in Britain pre-eminently concerned with language’s power dynamics, its aesthetic potentialities, and its prosthetic strangeness. Drawing on insights from applied linguistics and translation studies as well as literary scholarship, Bad English explores contemporary arguments about language in Britain – in debates about citizenship or education, in the media or on Twitter, in Home Office policy and asylum legislation – as well as the ways they are taken up in literature. It uncovers both an antagonistic and a productive interplay between language politics and literary form, tracing writers’ articulation of linguistic alienation and ambivalence, as well as the productivity and making-new of radical language practices. Doing so, it refutes the view that language difference and language politics are somehow irrelevant to contemporary Britain and instead argues for their constitutive centrality to the work of novelists and poets whose inside/outside relationship to English in its institutionalised forms is the generative force of their writing.
Reading empire’s absence in the novels of William Golding
William Golding's source for the first novel Lord of the Flies was 'the great original' of the boys-on-an-island tradition, R.M. Ballantyne's The Coral Island, with its intrepid boy-heroes, sure of their position in the racial order of things. In Golding's second published novel, The Inheritors, it is an act of cannibalism which serves as the most powerful emblem of the drive to colonise. For the Crusoe-esque protagonist of Golding's third novel Pincher Martin, cannibalism is a 'superbly direct' expression of the drive to conquer. By the time Golding published his 'condition of England' novel, Darkness Visible, in 1979, he was addressing the condition of a post-imperial England in decline. Returning to post-imperial Englishness in the late 1970s and 1980s, in an increasingly comic mode, Golding tentatively explores the flaws and blind spots in a shared imaginative landscape forged through the history of imperialism.
Chapter one considers the language politics of Scotland, in relation to claims for Scottish postcoloniality, as a way into considering the work of Scottish writers James Kelman and Tom Leonard. In their essays, as well as their prose and poetry respectively, both probe the evident distance between the written norms of Standard English and the Scots language-world of white working-class Glasgow, finding in the dynamics between writing and speech a synecdoche of the class system. As this chapter argues, Leonard and Kelman both in different ways draw on postcolonial literature, anticolonial politics, and Chomskyan linguistic thought, and claim solidarity in particular with Caribbean and black British writers, seeking on the grounds of language to reconcile a committed literary localism with an expansive anticolonial internationalism.
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.
Chapter six reflects on the relationship of language to regimes of border security, beginning by considering the asylum seeker as the preeminent multilingual figure of our times, endangered not least by the monolingualist ideology of the nation state and its enactment in asylum law. This chapter discusses a range of literary texts – the Refugee Tales project, James Kelman’s Translated Accounts: A Novel, and Brian Chikwava’s Harare North – which conjure asylum as a regime of ‘hostile language’. As this chapter argues, both Kelman’s and Chikwava’s linguistic experimentalism operates to make a self-enclosed language-world of paranoia, confusion, fear, and grief, constantly threatened with its own violent appropriation, which satirises and upends the asylum system’s demands for transparent testimony in an English that is supposedly infinitely capable of transmitting meaning without loss.
Chapter two discusses a group of Scottish writers, working as academics and translators as well as poets, whose poetry of the later 1980s and 1990s employs a synthetic, ‘dictionary-trawled’ Scots language in the context of a Scottish turn towards an internationalism of minor languages. Rather than being drawn from the lived language of everyday experience, their ‘Scots’ is a highly synthetic, neologistic medium, indebted to Hugh MacDiarmid’s ‘synthetic Scots’, salvaged and reinvented from sources as diverse as antiquarian dictionaries, contemporary media culture, and digital technology. The chapter discusses Robert Crawford’s early, ambitious techno-Scots poetry which casts itself, in its unsystematicity and unboundedness, as capable of internationalising English – part of a wider movement of ‘barbarian’ linguistic-literary insurrection across the formerly colonised world. It concludes with David Kinloch’s intimate poetry, incorporating a queer, dictionary-trawled Scots always on the verge of vanishing, a language that bridges the gap between past and present, living and dead, and stands for affective bonds between people and languages. The chapter concludes by considering, via Kinloch’s poetry, the wagers and risks that come with claims to solidarity on the grounds of language.
Chapter five considers the novelists Leila Aboulela and Xiaolu Guo, for whose women protagonists translation is a permanent and inevitable state of existence, and English a linguistic medium to be travelled into and out of. Aboulela writes in the conscious recognition of a global Islam in which the majority do not speak the language of the Qur’an, Arabic, and about Muslim communities in Britain in which multilingualism and transnational connectivity are everyday facts. For Guo, the back-and-forth transit between English and Chinese is at the centre of a ‘multimodal’ way of seeing in which all kinds of systems of meaning – linguistic, visual, filmic – are in dynamic, mutually energising relation and tension with one another. Comparing these two very different writers as examples of what Waïl Hassan calls ‘translational literature’ reveals two very different conceptualisations of the relationship of the individual to language and the nature of translation. Aboulela, regarding translation as fidelity, finds earthbound acts of translation inevitably falling short, and imagines spaces beyond the constraints of human signification and exegesis. Guo, seeing translation as iconoclastic and transformative, invests in it as a form of self-dissolution and self-remaking with individually and collectively radical creative potential.
The Conclusion discusses the work of French-Norwegian poet and multimedia artist Caroline Bergvall, which challenges the ways in which English is employed in the contemporary moment to patrol the borders of national belonging, and makes the case for its radical openness to other kinds of language. Returning to arguments made in the Introduction and throughout, the Conclusion finishes by turning to the contemporary moment – the run-up to Britain exiting the European Union, and the UK Government’s 2018 Integrated Communities Green Paper – and political and popular discourses that focus on language in the context of anxieties about border security and national belonging. By way of response, it restates the importance of literature’s resistant capabilities, to follow Bergvall in trying to imagine ‘a future perfect of English as language practice’.
Starting with Vahni Capildeo’s poetry, and also considering Sam Selvon’s novels and short stories, the Introduction suggests how writers’ everyday experiences of multilingualism give form to their work and how English signifies as a language of power and exclusion in their writing, but also as a form of language open to critical reshaping. Turning to think about the politics of language as a context for literature, it considers how English has been asserted and contested as a signifier of national belonging in Britain, in political and popular discourses, in education and debates over citizenship throughout the past 50 years – from Enoch Powell to the aftermath of the 2011 riots. The Introduction surveys scholarship on literary multilingualism and argues for the value of bringing together writers diverse in race, class, and ethnicity under the rubric of ‘bad English’.
Chapter three discusses the polyglot poetry and prose of British-Scottish-Asian novelist Suhayl Saadi and poet and multimedia artist Raman Mundair. As this chapter argues, both writers stage scenes of linguistic prosthesis and performance throughout their writing, treating languages not as fully interior systems of meaning but as samples, sounds, and fragments, reflecting theorist Rey Chow’s insistence that for the postcolonial subject, the encounter with ‘language as a foreign object’, with which one must ‘wrestle in order to survive’, is to be able to recognise more fully its reality as ‘prosthetic’. As both Saadi’s work and Mundair’s is at pains to point out – for example, in Mundair’s poetry in Shetland Scots – despite nativist fantasies to the contrary, no particular form of language has an essential relationship to the inner self. This chapter explores, in this context, how Saadi and Mundair navigate questions of linguistic authenticity or inauthenticity, of experimental or commodified, radical or self-exoticised multilingualisms, and argues that each models a politics of language predicated on the denial of all such fixed distinctions.