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2 August 2023

Hazel V Carby in Conversation: ‘You Cannot Accept Their Terms’

In this exclusive extract from Wasafiri 114: Windrush: Writing the Scandal, co-guest editor Henghameh Saroukhani sits down with literary critic, cultural historian, and Professor of African American Studies Hazel V Carby to discuss her book Imperial Intimacies against the background of the ongoing Windrush scandal — and how the book brings together the various strands of Carby's intellectual life. Carby talks about where she would shelve her book in the LRB bookstore, the reluctance to categorise her work into neat genres, and belonging.

You can read the full piece online or in Wasafiri 114.

In the preface to her multi-award-winning book Imperial Intimacies (2019), Hazel V Carby asks a profoundly revealing question: ‘Is it possible to produce a reckoning of movement between and among places, spaces and peoples, the scattering that results in racialized encounters and the violent transactions that produce racialized subjects?’ (3). To compose an account or computation of the history of any empire and entangled process of racialisation is difficult. The vast nature of imperial history alongside its erasure of unruly bodies renders any kind of ‘reckoning’ a seemingly impossible task. Carby’s writing confronts this challenge by turning what appears to be the exclusively personal into the necessarily political. As she traces generations of her family through the oppressive machinations of the British empire, she articulates an embodied accounting of the quotidian consequences of transatlantic slavery, war, and industrialisation. Reckoning with transnational imperial histories and the technologies of power that constitute not only race, but also gender and class discourses has been part of Carby’s three-decades-long career as a pathbreaking literary critic, cultural historian, and Professor of African American Studies (she is currently the Charles C and Dorothea S Dilley Professor Emeritus of African American Studies at Yale University). Carby has published field-defining monographs, articles, and increasingly editorials in venues such as the London Review of Books on topics ranging from African American women’s writing, black masculinity, comparative diasporas, and the imperialising and nationalising power of American intellectual thought. She was trained by late Jamaican-born British Cultural Studies scholar Stuart Hall at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) in Birmingham and has since become a leading interdisciplinary black feminist thinker working in the fields of literary studies, black cultural studies, and imperial history, to name a few. We met in February 2022 to discuss her book Imperial Intimacies and the ways in which it brought together the various strands of her intellectual life. The conditions of possibility of that reckoning with imperial history remained throughout the conversation, particularly as we discussed the protracted administrative cruelty of the hostile environment and the ongoing Windrush scandal. While our conversation took place virtually, we spoke from two intertwined imperial spaces — Halifax, Nova Scotia (Canada) and Guilford, Connecticut (USA).

Henghameh Saroukhani: Imperial Intimacies is a book that fuses countless genres and disciplines. It is theory, philosophy, life writing, history, and literary criticism. It defies categorisation, and, in many ways, remains boundaryless, undisciplined. Was this a conscious choice?

Hazel V Carby: I had this very conversation about how books are categorised and forced to ‘fit’ in particular disciplines with Vron Ware, especially as her own book Return of a Native: Learning from the Land (Repeater Books, 2022) is also difficult to classify; it is also boundaryless.

I told her we need to look at how books are physically classified; we need to look at bookstores, too. I told her a story about going to the London Review of Books (LRB) bookstore when Imperial Intimacies was first published. At the front of the store there was a table with all sorts of books about the Windrush, black Britain, and black Europe. My book was not there. I went downstairs because I knew where it would be. It was in the black (auto)biography/memoir section, which is the one category I absolutely refuse. So, I took it off the shelf and put it on the Windrush table with all the other books.

The inaccurate classification of Imperial Intimacies demonstrates how people don’t understand what’s at stake in writing life histories that are historical and not personal, that take individuals as characters, as historical subjects. I was trying to problematise the memoir category through my writing, by using the third person, ‘the girl’. The whole question of ‘disciplining’ is more of a problem than an enigma. When you’re actually doing interdisciplinary work, it can sometimes be very difficult for readers (academic or not) to make your work legible. There are more and more books like mine that defy this kind of categorisation.

HS: Where would you shelve your book at the LRB bookstore, if there wasn’t a Windrush table?

HVC: The other books ended up, I think, in ‘History’ and/or ‘British Black History’. That Windrush table wasn’t just about the Windrush. It was a place to find books like Johny Pitts’ Afropean (2019), books on black Britain and black Europe. I wanted to place Imperial Intimacies in this space.

HS: Your firm refusal of the genre of autobiography and memoir reminds me of Stuart Hall’s similar refusal of these categories in his posthumously published Familiar Stranger: A Life Between Two Islands (2017). Is there a political decision to your rejection of the autobiographical ‘I’ in your writing?

HVC: The point is to interrupt — to question the ‘auto’ in biography. Autobiography has historically been a very privileged voice. Numerous black writers in the United States for many, many years – going back to slave narratives – do not take the ‘I’ for granted. The ‘auto’ of biography has been assumed to be white, and, for many eons, male. The genre is linked up with all sorts of questions about family and belonging, none of which African-descended peoples in the United States and beyond could claim. The term and genre are a problem, not a solution. We need to interrogate what we even mean by autobiography and take that word apart.

HS: I am struck by the way you speak about the distillation of politics into the aesthetics of your writing, especially through the displacement of the self. Is the aesthetics of your writing central to all of your work; is that navigation of the self something you consistently think about, even struggle with?

HVC: Yes: it has been for my entire career. The politics of how the body fits, of how the body inhabits, of how the feminist body fits, of how the black feminist body exists, or doesn’t — I’ve always tried to raise these questions as conceptual problems. At the beginning of my career, I tried to analyse this through notions of belonging, and you can see this exploration of embodied belonging in Imperial Intimacies. ‘The girl’ in the book was a problem to how national belonging was defined and how racialised bodies were categorised. This is connected to the academy. The concept of diaspora was not even recognised in the field of African American Studies in the United States when I arrived in the 1980s (a field that should really be called United States Black Studies). As a professor of this field, I wondered: where on earth do I belong in all of this? … 

Continue reading the full piece online or in Wasafiri 114.
Cover photo by Jessica Ruscello on Unsplash      
Henghameh Saroukhani is Assistant Professor in Black British Literature at Durham University. She has published widely on contemporary black British and black Atlantic literatures and is co-editor of a recent special issue on the late Andrea Levy (ARIEL, 2022).
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