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Extravagant Strangers: A Literature of Belonging





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About the book:

Inglan is a bitch
dere's no escapin' it
Inglan is a bitch
dere's no runnin' whey fram it.

Linton Kwesi Johnson's is just one of the many perspectives on England collected together in Extravagant Strangers: A Literature of Belonging. As the title implies, the contributors come from "outside" of Britain. Johnson was born in Jamaica, and there are pieces by Rudyard Kipling and William Makepeace Thackeray (both born in India); Trinidadian V.S. Naipaul; New Zealander Katherine Mansfield; early slave narratives by Olaudah Equiano, Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, and Ignatius Sancho. There are also entries from the latest crop of non-British-born writers such as Salman Rushdie, Kazuo Ishiguro, and William Boyd, to name just a few. Edited by Caryl Phillips--himself an outsider, born in the West Indies--the collection attempts to identify just what it means to be British. As he writes in his introduction, "For British writers not born in Britain, the question of 'belonging' surfaces in their work in a variety of ways.... However, out of the tension between the individual and his or her society--in this case British--the finest writing is often produced."

Phillips points out that race, class, gender, and historical circumstances also affect the writer--obviously, the freed slave Ukawsaw Gronniosaw coming to England in the early 17th century would have a far different experience than the Anglo-Indian Kipling in the 19th century or the Japanese-born Ishiguro in the 20th. Nevertheless, there is something universal about all the experiences and observations noted here--from Thackeray's satirical exposť of British snobbery, "A Word About Dinners," to V.S. Naipaul's account of his first visit to England during which he "lost the gift of fantasy, the dream of the future, the far-off place where I was going." Extravagant Strangers is a fascinating exploration of British culture across time, race, and gender. It's also a terrific sampler of great writing, one that shouldn't be missed. --Alix Wilber

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