Memory, place and decolonisation: discovering through writing what it means to remember
 

Dr Arun Sood is a Lecturer in English with research expertise in Romantic literature in global contexts, postcolonialism, and memory studies.

He is the author of Robert Burns and the USA, c.1786-1866: Poetry, Print and Memory 1786-1866 (2018), and his work has often featured on television, radio, in print, and online.

Arun is also a creative practitioner, having written plays, poems and worked on several audio-visual installations. 

Prior to his academic career, he worked as a travel journalist and music critic for Time Out, The Guardian, and Lonely Planet.

In a wide-ranging conversation, Arun talks about place and space and what memory and identity means to him. He uses the example of Plymouth and the Mayflower remembrance to discuss issues of decolonisation and cultural renewal, and the challenge to maintain an inclusive legacy. 

Arun also talks about reading and writing during lockdown and why Plymouth is the perfect place to find your voice on one of our English and creative writing courses.

 

In conversation with Dr Arun Sood

Plymouth, place and decolonisation

How does studying English at Plymouth engage with issues around decolonisation?

The call for decolonisation is resonating in universities across the globe today, and I’m interested in furthering those conversations at both institutional and civic levels.

Critiques of knowledge production and circulation are central to literary studies, and so we — as students, scholars, and creative practitioners— all have a role to play in shaping these conversations.

Plymouth is a particularly interesting and indeed complex place to explore these issues given its open access to the Atlantic led to it being a port-city which was integral to colonial endeavour, as has been documented more widely during the Mayflower 400 commemorations.

How is this one key story in Plymouth’s past – the Mayflower voyage – reshaped by our current ideas of memorising, collective memory and cultural amnesia?

My colleague Dr Kathryn Gray's work on the colonial literatures of New England has fundamentally shaped the way the Mayflower sailing is being remembered in its 400th anniversary.

In the past, commemorations have tended to be Anglo-centric and celebrated heroic nationalisms, with little or no serious account of the impact of colonisation on indigenous peoples, which we might easily call a form of cultural amnesia.

Kathryn’s scholarship, in addition to various collaborations such as the Legend and Legacy exhibition, co-curated Wampanoag cultural leaders, has generated new ways of thinking about colonial heritage as it relates to the Mayflower anniversary and Plymouth as a global port-city.

This is an example of why it’s important to interrogate how collective memory is formed and impacts upon civic, national, and indeed global narratives of remembrance.

<p>Plaque on the Barbican commemorating the Pilgrims who sailed to America on the Mayflower.</p>
Mayflower Steps on a sunny day, looking towards the harbour.
<p>English and creative writing workshops with Stoke Damerel Community College for Mayflower400 Writing Anthology</p>
 

Can you tell us about your latest project which touches upon these themes?

My current project, Romanticism and West Africa: Griots, Bards & Books investigates the extent to which Romantic discourse shaped ideological assumptions about West Africa, and assesses how an examination of postcolonial West African literatures (written and oral) can help us to redefine the borders of Romanticism.

I interweave analysis of travel narratives, essays, oral literatures, and fiction, and examine the literary and intellectual legacies of Romanticism as established by enforced British colonial education policy.

I hope to offer interesting ways of thinking about knowledge hierarchies, and how they can be disrupted and deconstructed, even from within the colonial archive itself.

At the moment, for example, I’m looking at the way oral culture is portrayed in Mungo Park’s Travels in the Interior of Africa, but rather than think about it via Plato, or Greco-Roman/‘Western’ ways of thinking about language, I’m engaging with Mande knowledges and indigenous thought which has often been repressed in the Western academy.

If we are to decolonise literary studies, then it’s important to both deconstruct colonial ways of coming to know, as well as offer alternatives.

What is your understanding of how different histories, as well as myths and physical terrain, impacts upon the cultural memory of a place?

Memory is often inscribed upon place and vice versa. The theorist Jan Assmann describes how cultural memory relies on symbolisation and requires “institutions of preservation” in order for past experience to be conveyed or reconfigured.

So, for example, statues, books, anniversaries, relics, buildings, street signs can all function as “institutions of preservation” that preserve or uphold collective memories and indeed ideological national narratives.

Previously, I worked on a project that concentrated on Glasgow's forgotten links with the transatlantic slave trade, and helped to identify how museum buildings, statues, and street signs celebrated and commemorated individuals directly involved in the slave trade. These “institutions of preservation” were part of the city’s collective memory, and unpacking them helped to address aspects of what we might call the city’s cultural amnesia.

So when I arrived in Plymouth, I was naturally sensitive to the plethora of plaques, statues, street names, and buildings (all of the former being “institutions of preservation”) that celebrated colonial voyages and problematic figures such as Drake, John Hawkins, and Humphrey Gilbert.
The postcolonial and subaltern critiques that underpin much scholarship in our field helps to unpack and process these civic narratives, and can also inform their future direction.

In many ways, the Mayflower 400 year has been one of cultural renewal, and the challenge will be to maintain a legacy that encourages inclusivity, collaborative opportunities, and safe spaces to share work and ideas relating to key issues such as language, knowledge hierarchies, and contested histories.

At Plymouth, students learn from research-active staff, many of whom are published authors and experts in their field. How do you and your colleagues pass on this valuable wealth of experience and knowledge to students?

All of my colleagues care deeply for the subjects they research, and I think that authenticity transfers to students and helps them to find their own areas of interest.

The critical skills and knowledge that students acquire by studying English means that they too can have a role to play informing dialogue around important issues, from decolonisation to climate change to imagining better future communities for us all.

Our Writing Café

Rediscovering lost voices

You were born to a Gaelic-speaking, West-Highland mother and a Hindi-speaking Indian father who immigrated to Glasgow in the 1970s. What sparked your interest in studying English?

My mum’s native tongue was Gaelic, but she was taught to stop speaking it at school because it was considered (at that time) a “dying” language which led to little job prospects, and so she gradually lost fluency. 

My dad speaks several Indian languages, but was conditioned to view them in a manner that was not uncommon among first generation Indian immigrants in the 1970/80s. He saw little value in passing these languages on to us, since they were not esteemed in the same way that English was. 

I’m wary of drawing comparative postcolonial distinctions between my parents’ relationship to their respective native tongues, but there is no doubt that literary studies helped me to unpack the broader socio-political factors that affected my own family story. 

It helped me to think critically about issues and narratives that I hadn’t previously questioned.

You previously have worked as a travel journalist for The Guardian, Time Out and Schiphol Magazine, as well in music journalism too, having interviewed musicians such as Bryce Dessner from The National. What factors made you want to get into teaching?

I really enjoyed music and travel journalism for 2–3 years, but reached a point where I felt uninspired. It was also amidst an industry-wide shift from print to digital media, which meant less work for freelancers like me at the time.

I was drawn back to the challenges of academic reading, critical thinking, and research. I also had a particular tutor from my undergraduate days in mind when I decided to pursue my PhD.

They enabled me to think differently, more critically, at a formative stage in my life and changed me in ways that I didn’t fully appreciate until later. The idea that I could do that for others (one can hope at least!) really appealed to me.

Which authors and artists inspired you while growing up and studying?

Books and music were important to me from a young age, but it was at university that my horizons broadened. I actually began studying English with music, but eventually decided to pursue musical interests on the side and majored in English.

At university, I was introduced to books that smacked me in the face (in a good way!) the first time I read them.

Ron Butlin’s The Sound of My Voice for its haunting use of second-person narrative; Janice Galloway’s The Trick Is To Keep Breathing for how beauty and fragility could be captured in prose; and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Melville’s Moby Dick enthralled me for different reasons, but both sparked my interest in American literature, which led to Emerson, Thoreau, the transcendentalists, and the Beats.

I also took a final year module on Burns which completely changed my understanding of his works. Little did I know that just under a decade later I’d be writing a book on Burns in relation to American literature.


Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man (1952)

 

Reading and writing during lockdown

Are there any books you recommend to read during this period of lockdown that explores the key themes of place, memory and history?

Where to start! In terms of fiction, James Robertson’s Joseph Knight subverts Romantic-era memories of Jacobite Scotland by focusing on the real-life story of an enslaved man transported to the Highlands from Jamaica. It’s probably my favourite historical novel. 

I also recently designed a new MA module that examines the interrelationships between literary culture and memory from 1780 to the present, so it’s a broad spectrum! Some of the writers studied include Marcel Proust, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Chinua Achebe, and Virginia Woolf.

In terms of critical theory on memory, there is a whole sub-field of memory studies, but for starters I recommend reading works by Pierre Nora, Jan Assmann, Aleida Assmann, Jay Winter, Leith Davis, Wai Chee Dimock and Ann Rigney.

How do you think this current period of lockdown will inspire and be remembered and recorded by our future writers?

It’s a really good question. There is a sense that time and memory have a completely different fabric at the moment, and that we’re living in an unprecedented historical moment where our relationship to those (already nebulous) concepts has become even more abstract. 

There is an absence of daily markers of time, such a catching a certain bus to work, taking a lunch break, going to an afternoon lecture, and this has an impact on how we remember. 

It’s a big topic which I’m sure memory researchers from various disciplines will approach, but I’m also certain that writing and creative practice will have its role to play in challenging our understanding of this period and its ramifications. 

Writing, among many other things, offers a way of preserving memory, hope, empathy, and can also expose the fragility of time as a conception in itself!

 

Find your voice

Studying English and creative writing at Plymouth offers you the opportunity to choose a range of courses which feed your interest in literature, sharpen your critical and analytical skills, and study and practise creative writing.

We encourage you to interpret not only the texts you'll read but also the world around you in more subtle and penetrating ways.

The teaching staff are published writers and poets in their own right and support future aspiring and emerging writers through their teaching, publishing initiatives such as Periplum Poetry.

Study English and creative writing