RGS Guildford courtyard with students

Black British Literature with Dr Saroukhani

The English Department was delighted to welcome Dr Henghameh Saroukhani, Assistant Professor in Black British Literature at the University of Durham, to participate in a seminar with our Upper Sixth students and a symposium between our Lower Sixth students and their counterparts at Tormead School.

This term, the Upper Sixth students have been studying an iconic Windrush text, The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon, which details the lives of a group of immigrants, largely from Britain’s former Caribbean colonies, as they struggle to settle into their new lives in 1950s London, a city rife with both insidious and overt racism. Dr Saroukhani’s seminar focused on how in recent years criticism of the novel has shifted away from viewing it as a realistic social commentary to appreciating its aesthetic form. Primarily, this has been achieved through viewing the novel as fitting into the tradition of literary modernism through its use of techniques established by writers such as Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner. The students and Dr Saroukhani also engaged in a conversation about the novel’s distinctive Caribbean vernacular and Calypsonian wit.

The collaborative symposium, entitled The Canon of Windrush Literature, was the culmination of continued work between the Lower Sixth A-Level English Literature students at both RGS Guildford and Tormead School. Students were organised into groups of five or six and tasked with reading a book significant to Windrush immigration. The selected texts were To Sir with Love by E. R. Braithwaite, Imperial Intimacies: A Tale of Two Islands by Hazel Carby, Familiar Stranger: A Life between Two Islands by Stuart Hall, Final Passage by Caryl Phillips, and The Housing Lark by Sam Selvon. Each student had to select a passage to analyse from their allocated book, which could then be presented at the symposium. The students worked together to research their texts and to share resources, before arriving at the symposium ready to engage in a discussion with each other, Dr Saroukhani, Ms Thishani Wijesinghe, Ms Helen Stevens, Assistant Head (Teaching and Learning) at Tormead School, and me. Insightful points were made regarding the prejudice encountered by Caribbean people once they arrived in what they deemed to be the “mother country”, the nature of autobiography as a genre, and the distinct experiences of female immigrants. The students demonstrated intellectual curiosity in venturing beyond their syllabus and researching an area of literature that remains vastly underrepresented in both schools and universities. Dr Saroukhani commented on how impressed she was with the quality of the dialogue and presentations, especially considering she does not teach many of the selected texts until her undergraduates are in the second or third year of their degrees.