And the chalk-face isn't all slog. Every year a new batch of students makes it worthwhile. It is a privilege to help young people to reach their potential and guide them to confident independence. It has been a real joy to get back in the saddle of teaching Literature A-Level. Having spent years running the amazing Language and Literature Combined A-Level, it has been refreshing to return to a revamped version of the more traditional qualification.
One of the joys is the fact that it embraces modernity in some of its modules. My reading has certainly been more varied because of it. The "Immigration Literature" unit has Hamid's Reluctant Fundamentalist as its lead text and Lahiri's The Namesake as a comparison. Beyond that however, there is encouragement to read widely; to learn about the politics of immigration and its stories. So I have read A Very Short Introduction To American Immigration (well the introduction at least) and have its companion text A Very Short Introduction to International Immigration in my bag for reading over the Easter holidays. If you haven't discovered this delightful series of non-fiction texts, then pop to Oxford University Press to check them out. If you ever managed to read them all, you'd be a whizz at University Challenge. I really need to read all the ones I have collected so far (they look very attractive on the bookshelves you see), as my scores in the recent quarter-final episodes have been shameful!
On the fiction front, I have completed John Updike's The Terrorist and Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche's Americanah. I have also re-read The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farrell, but that one has no link with the A-Level unit!
Americanah was a very different read and though not as gripping as Half of a Yellow Sun, it was a satisfying book. The immigration theme continues, but this time from a Nigerian perspective. The central character Ifemelu has grown up in Nigeria and moved to America for university. Like The Namesake, it conveys the difficulties of assimilation and through fiction, forces readers to confront their own subconscious bias. It is interesting that she states that it was only when she moved to America that she had any concept of race or being black. She discovered a hierarchy where she was not near the top, despite her education and abilities. She discovered that the American Dream was not all it promises. Once she had graduated, Ifemelu made a living from her writing, and her blog posts make up a significant element of Part 4 of the novel. Adiche uses them to make political comment that is sociological and contemporary. It is a voice for a significant minority that, despite the years since the civil rights movement began, have got used to not being heard.
Parallel to the American story is a brief glimpse into life in the UK as an African immigrant. Obinze, Ifemelu's teenage boyfriend, comes to Britain to seek opportunity. He arrived as a successful, well-educated young man, but never once received acknowledgement of that. Any jobs he had were unskilled and there was little possibility of his achieving a long-term visa or British legality.
The story ends back in Nigeria. Both Obinze and Ifemelu return to their homeland. Here the story becomes one of readjustment, of re-assimilation to the country of birth after experiencing Western culture.
The literature of immigration is sociology through fiction. It demands something of its readers. It asks us to address our own preconceptions and, like Inua Ellams said, asks us to question whether it is ever right to label a human being as illegal.
Fiction and the lives of well-drawn characters have the capacity to change the way people think.
Reading is not a passive activity or a harmless hobby: it is an invitation to explore the lives of other people and a tool to help us make up our own minds about the world in which we live.