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‘Literature is a great vehicle to teach truth of British Empire’ — interview with Hannah Lowe

Hannah Lowe recently won the Costa Poetry Award for a collection of sonnets inspired by her time as a teacher at a London sixth form college, The Kids. She spoke to Judy Cox about the legacy of British Empire, the impacts of racism, sexism and class on young people, and giving silent voices a platform
Issue 2801
The front cover of Hannah Lowe's Costa Poetry Award winning book The Kids

Hannah Lowe won the Costa Poetry Award for her book of sonnets, The Kids

What’s the power of literature and poetry for young people, and what role can schools play?

We have to address the material realities of students’ lives, the complex history of Britain and the legacies of the British Empire. That’s even if the teachers or students believe themselves to be white and monocultural—it is their heritage too.

We should teach the truth, and literature is a great vehicle for doing that. The act of writing can itself be an act of resistance because it gives a voice to those who may have been denied one.

To even become a writer might well involve a struggle against interlocking systems of oppression, because writing is a pretty lofty occupation. And not all people, particularly those from marginalised communities, would necessarily see themselves in that role.

In Britain, there is an accepted canon of “great” literature. In teaching, I wanted to make the students understand they didn’t have to believe those books were great, just because they had been lauded that way.

I used to draw a picture of a suitcase or a crate on the whiteboard, label it “the canon” and ask the students to suggest which books were in it. They’d call out the names of Dickens’ novels or Shakespeare’s plays.

I’d ask, “Who packed the suitcase?” and encourage them to think of different books—perhaps books they knew and liked, but weren’t canonical texts. And we’d talk about why they weren’t.

When I left school and went to college, I began to see how literature can be a strategy of resistance, of coping, of healing. I wanted to pass that knowledge, that feeling, onto the students I taught.

We used to teach Alice Walker’s The Colour Purple and many of the students loved it. Walker deals with racial and gender oppression and resistance. But it also raises questions—should we assume that students in the early 21st century in Hackney should be interested in characters from the 1930s US Deep South?

Teachers might see parallels. But we cannot assume students will see these parallels, nor that all black students want to read about slavery and its legacies all the time. That endless repetition of narratives can be both affirming and problematic. That’s something I think about the repeated narrative around the arrival of the Empire Windrush in 1948.

On the one hand, it’s an incredibly important anniversary, which communities have gathered and felt recognised around. On the other, it seems to continually lock people at the border, always at the point of arriving.

Therefore it doesn’t acknowledge the long history of settlement of black people in Britain, which goes back centuries. Nor does it acknowledge thinking about the last 70 years of post-war Caribbean settlement, all the different forms of resistance to racism, and the creation of a vibrant diasporic culture.

At one point in my teaching career, we read Never Far from Nowhere by Andrea Levy. The book is about all kinds of things—multicultural London, girlhood, family, youth culture, and about the effects of shadism on two young women’s lives.

It’s not a well-known novel, but I remember the girls in the class really relating to it. They said they’d had similar experiences and feelings around skin colour prejudice. I’d make an argument for that book being in some kind of canon.

Are you trying to make poetry accessible and relevant to young people?

People often say that my poetry is accessible, but it’s honestly just the way I write. I want the reader to see what I can see.

The challenge of the poem is partly about translating the visual image I have in my mind, or behind my eyes, onto the page. It takes a long time. I sometimes write hundreds of drafts before I get it right.

My next book is a short collection of poems and visual material about Chinese wallpaper. The wallpaper is a luxury good of the Empire, popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, and that still hangs in many of Britain’s great country houses. It tells the stories of East India trade, of the nepotism involved between aristocratic families, about the accrual and maintenance of wealth.

My writing and my teaching are an unfolding inquiry into empire, Britishness and intersectional discussions about race, and class and gender.


The Art of Teaching II

Boredom hangs like a low cloud in the classroom.
Each page we read is a step up a mountain
In gluey boots. Even the clock-face is pained
And yes, I’m sure now, ticking slower. If gloom
has a sound, it’ as the voice of Leroy reading
Frankenstein aloud. And if we break
to talk, I know my questions are feeble sparks
that won’t ignite my students’ barely beating
hearts.

I started teaching when I was so young and I felt, at that age, I lacked both authority and knowledge. So I send myself up a lot in the poems in The Kids. Much of my literary education came through and because of teaching. I had to teach myself Shakespeare plays, about the Romantic poets, and Jacobean tragedies, so I could teach them. And I had to link all of that to the teaching of the syllabus ‘assessment objectives. 

When I was at college, I don’t remember being aware of assessment at all—just coursework, and at some point, an exam. But by the time I was teaching, students had become very assessment conscious and we had to respond to that. It was and still is a shame. It detracts from the idea of education being for the love of learning, or learning for learning’s sake.

Education could be very different without such a narrow curriculum, without targets, without private schools and with both teachers and students having real agency. I believe all education should be free, and it should be life-long, allowing people to enter into learning at whatever point is right for them. 


Janine

was a Monday-morning-queasy-feeling.
I was never ready for her choice of sting:
the late strut-in, teeth-kissing, rolling
eyes,
My protests thwacked away like swatted flies.

In Janine I’m remembering how a student’s hostility towards me lessened when someone told her that my dad was Jamaican and Chinese. But the poem is as much about teacher and student boundaries as it is about my own self-consciousness about my racial identity.

I do think people from migrant backgrounds have a different awareness of the world. When I was four or five, I was aware of China and Jamaica as nodal points in my heritage, way before I could find them on a map. But I looked white, so I felt like an outsider. I was not settled in “white Britishness” nor settled in anything else.

The intersections of class and race shaped the life of my family. My Mum was a white primary teacher, ostensibly middle class, while my Dad was a working-class immigrant. And that led to a fair bit of confusion in terms of my own place in the world.

I’ve been working through that conundrum ever since. I’vet been thinking about my Dad’s life story and how to recover it, and being attuned to the histories that shaped his life and experience and mine.


Technology

Suddenly computers,
screens, an electronic pen
so off the cuff,
I’d ping a poem up –
‘To mercy, Pity, Peace and Love’
or a drawing of the Pardoners
an image of an ivory tusk
or a map –
one that showed
the ‘heyday’ of the British Empire,
the pale blue sea around
the places half those kids
had sort of come from once,
shaded rich and bloody red.

My students had their own experiences of empire, and of recent wars. They did not necessarily understand them, but they were part of their lived experience or that of their parents’. Those legacies are alive in the classroom, and I think as teachers we need to educate our students about this.  

History is not remote, locked in a distant past. It shapes the lived and material realities of communities. And there is much, often unacknowledged trauma in recent history that should be acknowledged, expressed and explored. 

History doesn’t just live in the textbooks and the archives. The histories of people like my dad, who came to Britain on a ship before Windrush, are in our memories and our homes. I wanted my students to think about these things too. Throughout my work, the empire is a constant source of imagination for me precisely because there are so many silent voices and unexcavated stories. 


Welling 93

On the news that night they called us violent youth
but what I remember is the green cord jacket I was wearing
pulled from a bargain bin that morning
and a busload of us singing our way down South,
the yellow placards like a bobbing sea of lollipops,
a beautiful man with dreadlocks, studs on his chin
and us on the frontline marching and chanting
until the chanting suddenly stopped,
then one voice shouted Police Protect the Nazis!
the police like a wall of giant flies, their graceful white horses,
then silence – no moment in my life do I remember quieter –
before the charges, the bricks, the screams,
two boys with gashed heads running together,
that animal smell, red smoke, blood on my sleeves – 

My dad was a member of the Communist Party and sold the Daily Worker newspaper at Hampstead Tube in the late 1950s. When I was growing up, he was active in the Labour Party. It was not until I left my traditional school and went to Barking College that I met people active in the Anti Nazi League (ANL) and the Socialist Workers Party. 

Going on the Welling protest was a formative experience. It was my first demonstration, and the first time I realised that the police were not a benevolent force. The poem expresses my visceral memories of the police horses, the wall of shields, the batons. It was a huge, defining moment to see political commitment in action. 

The poem might seem tiny, but a lot of research went into it. To write it, I had to go back to watch old footage, speak to other people who were there, and read accounts of the demo on online forums. I hope the poem captures both the excitement of being on a demonstration and the shock we felt.

The photo on the front cover of The Kids is from the ANL carnival in Brixton, a year or so later. It is colour but I reproduced it in black and white to show that these events, the things we did, are part of our history. 


Ricochet!

Four boys blew up three tube trains and a bus.
My old pal was stood beside a bomber.
The police shot a man they said had Mongolian eyes.
For days, friends searched the hospitals for her.
The wrong man they shot, they shot eleven times.
We’d heard a voicemail, her saying she was fine.
It was summer still when the kids came back.
Muslim boys in Nikes and thobes and skull caps.
Boyish beards that made them look like men.
Her face still flashed up on the television.
Two girls swept down the hall in full black burkas.
Moniza said a police van took her brother.
The papers called the bombers British-born.

I remember a time when I was at school with Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, and there was no active demonisation of Muslims, or certainly none I can recall. Current Islamophobia emerged post 9/11 and then again in Britain after the 7/7 bombings.  

A friend of mine was killed in those bombs. She had stood next to one of the bombers on her way to work. That was July. By September, some of the Muslim students came back with a seemingly stronger sense of being Muslim, illustrated through their choice of dress, more use of the prayer room. I think this was about resistance—to their communities being victim to stop and search and populist racism after the bombs. In the staff room, some teachers complained about teaching students in Niqabs. I said, you just need to listen harder.

I felt grief and lamentation. I felt it for both my friend and for these kids whose lives would be shaped by the terrorism, but also the knee-jerk reaction to terror stirred up through the media. Since then, Islamophobia feels entrenched in our culture— the idea of radicalisation, of the Prevent programme in schools, has become part of the iconography of our lives. 

British Born

And suddenly, new language – British born –
For kids who grew up on terraces in Leeds
Or tower blocks in Bow, and at weekends
tied their bootlaces for footie on the lawn
and went to college to study Sports or Business
or Car Mechanics and spoke with accents thick
as Yorkshire mud and London bullet-quick –
yes blud! And innit! – and were as British as
a pack of salt-and-vinegar, and no,
his teacher hadn’t noticed him withdrawing
and no, his mother hadn’t wondered who
he called at 2 am in the blue-lit bedroom
of the bungalow – despite her scrubbing,
the words a glow on their garden wall: GO HOME

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