The Inaugural NPN Event Report

By Danielle Hall

The Northern Postcolonial Network was established in 2014 to support knowledge exchange and networking amongst scholars, individuals and groups working on postcolonial topics, and its inaugural event at Liverpool John Moores University on 25th March 2015 did just that. Moreover, it facilitated discussions around the directions in which its own members saw the network progressing.  As a result, the day took a welcoming, inclusive approach to the opinions of all its delegates, which ranged from undergraduate attendees and postgraduate doctoral candidates, to early career researchers, leading academics and editors of well-respected journals, all working within the field of postcolonial studies.

The event began with a roundtable discussion on the aims of the network, which was chaired by Dr Fiona Tolan (Liverpool John Moores University), and led by Dr Matthew Whittle (Manchester), Dr Veronica Barnsley (Sheffield), Dr Kate Houlden (Liverpool John Moores University) and Dr Jade Munslow Ong (Salford). Matt gave a brief history of the NPN’s original formation and went on to talk about his hopes for the network to act as a research database of postcolonial topics currently under exploration, which could lead to collaborative work across institutions, and other external links, within the north of the UK. Veronica built upon Matt’s observation and spoke of her hopes for the NPN to continue its inclusive nature and actively seek to build sustainable relationships with community partners engaged with postcolonial topics. Giving Arts on the Run and Leeds Young Authors as two examples of external groups that the NPN have made industrious links with, Veronica called upon other members to suggest and help facilitate engagement with postcolonial-related projects.

Kate spoke of her interest in terms of how the network may help postgraduates, early career researchers and academics pedagogically. As a representative of the host University for the inaugural event, Kate raised questions about what postcolonialism means to us as researchers, tutors and lecturers, why we teach it, and the ways in which we do so. She spoke of her hopes for the NPN as a place where the politics of what and how we teach can be explored, as well as where experiences of teaching and resources to aid the pedagogical practice can be shared. Jade continued the discussion on how to develop the network, but focused more on the ways in which it might retain this sense of continual growth and progression as it becomes more established. Jade spoke of the NPN’s forthcoming special edition of the Journal of Commonwealth Literature, and talked about her hopes for further collaborations with academic organisations too. She also raised ideas about how the network could aid ongoing discussions surrounding its own development, in ways which may be easily accessible to the aforementioned scholars, individuals and groups, suggesting that online forums may be useful in generating these necessary conversations.

In light of this opening discussion, network members were invited to join the conversation. Responses from the audience ranged from discussions about the need to consider and understand what we mean by the term “north” as a space and “northern” as a concept, which Professor John McLeod returned to in his keynote speech, to stressing desire for the NPN to operate alongside, and in support of, other established academic organisations. Members talked about the need for the network to offer help to researchers of all levels, through practical workshops at bi-annual events, and to continue facilitating the networking and collaborative research amongst its members.

After a short break, the event launched two consecutive postgraduate/early career researcher panels, both chaired by Dr Michael Morris (Liverpool John Moores University). Members were invited to submit abstracts on any element of the postcolonial and, as a result, Panel 1 was loosely centred around pushing the boundaries of the postcolonial field and Panel 2 focused on thinking across postcolonial spaces.

In his paper ‘Postcolonial Studies and Programmatic Politics’, Edward Powell (Leeds) explored how a deconstructive practice, which tests the limits of systemic analysis, might become central to a political programme which pursues the total decolonisation of the world. Next, Dr Rachel Bower (Cambridge) offered a discussion of how field theory may be useful to postcolonial critics through viewing aesthetics and politics as interlinked, in her paper ‘Comparative Criticism and the Literary Field’. Finally, Christinna Hobbs (Liverpool John Moores University) presented a paper entitled ‘Comparing Independence in Literature of the Danish North Sea Empire: A Study in World Literature’, which gave an overview of her research that focuses on Denmark’s internal and cultural engagement with its colonial past and present. Questions for the first panel generated discussions around how smoothly postcolonial texts translated into other literary fields, and the possibility of using already established examples of research to engage with postcolonialism in different locations. Panel 1 showcased research which raises conversations about the characteristics of the field of postcolonial studies and sought to suggest that, as a consequence of its relative maturity, we are now able to challenge the gaps it has presently failed to acknowledge.

Panel 2 began with ‘Mapping Calcutta through Handbooks and Advice Manuals’ by Arunima Bhattacharya (Leeds). She gave an overview of her thesis which aims to compare guidebooks from European and native publishing houses to trace the ways in which specific places in Calcutta were hierarchized along the lines of colonial discourse. Next, Ed Chapman (Manchester) gave his paper on ‘The Nature of the Caribbean in Aimé Césaire’s Une Tempête’. Speaking about Césaire’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, he suggested that the biodiversity of the island within the text serves to emphasise the multicultural possibilities of the Caribbean. Finally, in ‘Narratives of Development in the Contemporary African Novel’, Amy Rushton (Manchester) argued that the narrative strategies of selected texts gesture towards alternative views of Sub-Saharan Africa beyond traditional Western narratives of crisis, famine and corruption. In response to these papers, questions for the second panel attended to the ways in which writers attempt to narrativise space, and as a result, emphasised the research taking place across the north that particularly focuses on demanding openness towards engaging with other spaces.

To close the formal part of the NPN’s inaugural event, Professor John McLeod was invited to deliver a thought-provoking keynote speech on ‘Bearings North: Local, Transregional Institutional’. Returning to conversations raised at the round-table discussion, John sought to engage with the idea of the north and the reasons why it may prove so beneficial to a postcolonial network. Speaking of a desire to spatialize this region outside of the north/south divide, John talked about the notion of the north as a lateral motion of passage from east to west. Moving between two liquid spaces, from the Mersey to the Humber, he referred to this as a transient space and passage of movement. John used the example of the M62 as a spinal point, an artery, for this movement, which he suggested will enable us to generate questions about how the north negotiates the “local” in relation to the global. John talked about the need for a lateral propulsion of exploration into transcultural relations between the north. Using Caryl Phillips’ The Lost Child (2015) as a starting point for this journey across the north, he talked about the need to engage with “deeds past and present tasks”, calling for the network to look back at the half-hidden histories of the region as well as engaging with the current research going on within it.

Further deliberating upon this idea of “deeds past”, John returned to the M62 to talk about the construction of this national highway by diasporic labourers, as a reminder of the centrality of those who are often forgotten. He talked about the positive legacies of the northern region: The Cosmopolitan Club in Manchester and the 1945 Pan-African Congress at the Chorlton-upon-Medlock Town Hall; Chinua Achebe’s visit to Leeds in 1964 for the founding conference on Commonwealth Literature; the profound role the Leeds-established Journal of Commonwealth Literature plays in the global academic environment at present; and the north as a place of refuge and safety for migrants from post-independence Ireland. Yet he also brought attention to the idea of the north as a double-edged sword, challenging the cliché of the north as a friendly, hospitable space. For John, the 1919 race riots in Liverpool and the case of David Oluwale in Leeds serve to remind us that the north can also be considered place which has a complex history of race relations the last place of success for racial politics, and urged us not to forget these difficulties too. John ended his reflections on the north by asking us to consider how this space looks to postcolonial writers, in order to understand its wider cultural construction.

Moving away from this focus on the specifically “local”, John then discussed the “transregional” with reference to the need for a deprovincialization of this space. The “north” represents a locality which does not signify anywhere concrete: the journey from the Mersey to the Humber can be representative of a wider exploration of spaces which spans from east to west, from the postcolonial space of Ireland to the European continent. John urged us to consider how we might learn from other “northern” spaces, calling for a pan-northern exploration beyond our own shores: transregional; trans-northern; trans-cultural. The keynote closed with a final reflection on the implications of the term “the north” for institutions in this region. Rather than producing a competitive atmosphere, John suggested that the NPN marks a space where collegial confluence can take place. In order to resist one metanarrative of institutional development, he talked about the importance of the network’s headquarters remaining unfixed to promote continual collaboration of institutions across the region. Ending on the metaphor of the “network” as a textile, John suggested that the geological and cultural connectiveness of the north means the NPN holds the possibility to become a polylocational textile that weaves together individual strands of research in order to generate a strong fabric of postcolonial research across the region. John closed his keynote by urging the network’s members to consider the wider implications of their regional positioning and how this can be used generatively.

John’s keynote marked the end of the formal side of the inaugural event. Members were then invited to engage in networking opportunities over a drinks reception, before settling into a poetry reading by Khadijah Ibrahiim. As the artistic director of Leeds Young Authors, Khadijah’s presence represented the NPN’s already established links with wider community projects. Reading from her most recent collections, Rootz Runnin and Another Crossing, Khadijah spoke with passion and zest about her Jamaican parentage, her Leeds upbringing and weaving stories.

As the NPN’s inaugural event came to a close, members continued conversations that had been inspired by discussions on the day, long into the evening. Surpassing all expectation, the event not only supported knowledge exchange and networking amongst scholars, individuals and groups working on postcolonial topics across the north, its postgraduate research panel also provided opportunities for new researchers to showcase the fantastic research taking place within the region. In addition to this, the event facilitated  discussions about how the network may progress, grow and develop as a hub of academic confluence; and left all in attendance with plenty to think about in terms of the “north”, both as a locality and as a concept which holds a multiplicity of possibilities for the future of postcolonial studies.

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