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SPEAKER SPOTLIGHT: Priyamvada Gopal, Reader in Anglophone and Related Literatures, Faculty of English

Priyamvada Gopal is University Reader in Anglophone and Related Literatures in the Faculty of English at the University of Cambridge. She will be speaking in the session How anticolonical resistance influenced British critics of empire on 25th October. Her talk is linked to a forthcoming book on the subject.


Question: What motivated your new book?

Priyamvada Gopal: The poverty of the empire ‘debate’ in Britain and the claim that it was wrong to be critical of the Empire for racism and exploitation because ‘back in the day’ people didn’t think like us. That turned out to be completely untrue: there was sharp criticism of aspects of Empire and even the Empire itself from the very start.


Q: What is its central thesis?

PG: The argument of the book is not just that there is a long tradition of British criticism of Empire or British anticolonialism but that this is a tradition that was actively influenced by   witnessing and engaging with resistance to empire and insurgent movements in the colonies themselves. A lot of attention is paid to the ways in which Britain influenced political thought in the colonies; I’m arguing that there was influence in the other direction as well.


Q: Why is this important now?

PG: I will quote the Antiguan author, Jamaica Kincaid, whose injunction applies to us all: “And might not knowing why they are the way they are, why they do the things they do, why they live the way they live, why the things happened to them happened, lead these people to a different relationship with the world, a more demanding relationship, a relationship in which they are not victims all the time of every bad idea that flits across the mind of the world?”

The story of empire and resistance to it, both within and without Britain, binds us all. Part of my goal is to give back to Britain a story about some of its own powerful dissident traditions which were also deeply influenced by events in Asia and Africa and by engagement with anticolonial thinkers from these regions.


Q: Is it possible to have a reasoned public discussion about empire in the current political climate?

PG: It has to be made possible. We are all shaped by the legacies of the British Empire, each one of us, and it is essential that the silences be broken and the falsehoods examined and rebutted carefully. Certainly there are elements of the media who are trying to make that discussion impossible by targeting people who are critical of the Empire and generally raising the temperature in order to shut any questioning down, but this must not be allowed to happen.


Q: How can academics contribute to this?

PG: By offering honest and thoughtful accounts of empire and its afterlife. This is very different, however, from ‘balance-sheets’ which are a questionable and discredited method.  History is not a simple ledger and the story is a far more complex one than calls for ‘balance’ would indicate. These calls are, in any case, bad faith attempts to rehabilitate the imperial venture.


Q: How much was Brexit about the empire?

PG: Very deeply so. It’s a consequence of this country not having assessed the imperial story with honesty. It’s also an attempt to resuscitate the idea of an exceptional great nation which can have a special relationship with its former colonies.


Q: How can education address this?

PG: Again, by making teaching about the empire central to history but not in a simplistic way. I’m struck by how little my students know about the empire - their schooling has given them very little. We have to rectify that.