Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Let’s celebrate the migrant authors of English literature

One Day Without Us is a British grassroots campaign to celebrate the contributions that EU citizens and migrants from all over the world make and have made to daily British life. It culminates in a national day of action all over the UK on Monday 20 February 2017. See what else is happening in your area.

katherine_mansfieldWhat have migrants ever done for English literature? The critieria used to select these names was the spontaneous feeling of ‘My goodness, I thought they were BRITISH …’. They lived in the UK, they were born elsewhere, but they changed British literary culture for ever. In a GOOD way. If I could invite them to a party to celebrate their contributions, these would be top of my list.

  • Oscar Wilde is famously Irish, even though he died before Ireland achieved its independence from Great Britain. Of all the Irish authors glittering in the crown of English literature, he is the one least likely to be reappropriated as Irish, and is forever ‘English’. Can you imagine the bon mots cascading effortlessly from his lips as he circulates the party, looking for prey? Hock and seltzer for the gentleman in velvet, please.
  • Then there’s Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski. He was born in the Ukraine but we all know him as that Polish bloke who was brilliant at modulating nineteenth-century realism into an early form of modernism. Is Heart of Darkness as ubiquitous and necessary in our daily lives as a Polish dentist? Actually yes: it’s one of the standard works of English literature that we all study at school. Thank you, Joseph Conrad: have a drink on us, and tell us sea stories.
  • Another giant of twentieth-century literature – a formidable mainstay of British publishing as well as THE defining poet of modernity – is a Yank. Oversexed, overpoetical, and over here, no wait, that’s a different American. Anyway, Thomas Stearns Eliot became a director at Faber & Faber, and also wrote some of the most influential and most quoted modern English poetry of the twentieth century. His august tones and formidable knowledge would change the room into a salon. Gin and It for him, I think.
  • Katherine Mansfield, she of the exquisitely, viciously funny short stories of In A German Pension (1911), was a New Zealander. She lived in England, and elsewhere in Europe, and brought a game-changing approach to writing what she saw and how her characters felt, revolutionising the writing of interiority. She’s the witty one delivering snark over a cigarette and a Martini.
  • Jean Rhys came to Europe from Dominica, and changed forever the way we read Jane Eyre with her novel Wide Sargasso Sea (1966). Rhys’ Mrs Rochester is allowed to have a voice, and her West Indian roots are openly discussed. Was this the beginning of post-colonialism in Eng lit? It was the voice of the colonised underdog and the excluded outsider; forcing a way into calcified ideas of what ‘English’ literature was. She’ll break up the cliques and make the party Go by arranging conga lines and scary cocktails.
  • The New Zealander Ngaio Marsh is the one of the four monumental Queens of Crime in the Golden Age of English detective fiction. She used the theatre as her stage for classical police procedurals, and used her artist’s eye for setting and dramatic effects. Her novels are irresistibly readable, and resolutely English. She would have a rival salon to T S Eliot, and would make us all do impromptu readings from Hamlet, quaffing ale.
  • Roald Dahl changed children’s literature by allowing the natural tolerance of the child for horror and the Gothic to be admitted into the children’s section of the library. The Victorians knew this already – have you actually read the Brothers Grimm, or Hans Christian Andersen? (two Germans, and a Dane, incidentally) – but it took a Norwegian to wrench open the cage doors of cuteness and whimsy again. He’d host the corner where people tell grim tales of horrifically dark humour and drink beer.
  • P L Travers, an Australian, did something similar by allowing children’s fiction to be inexplicably sad, to allow misery and the uncomfortableness of the real world to be part of the story. Her Mary Poppins novels are early magical realism, and paved the way for the flowering of the everyday fantastic in children’s fiction, from Joan Aiken onwards. Tea for her, and a slosh of whisky.
  • The legendary Sir Salman Rushdie is Indian, and the dominant literary name in English magical realism. His novels and short stories changed the way we think about modern literary realism and his persecution from adherents to the fatwah issued against him made English literature stand for artistic expression in the face of religious and state objections. Give this man a storytelling carpet and a tall refreshing lassi.

Who of your favourite migrant authors would you invite to the party, and what would you offer them to drink?


About Kate

Blogger, lecturer, podcaster, writer, critic, reviewer, researcher, and publisher (, in and on British literary history. Preferred occupation while listening to podcasts: cooking or knitting. Preferred soundtrack while reading: the sound of silence.

10 comments on “Let’s celebrate the migrant authors of English literature

  1. The Reading Bug
    February 20, 2017

    Great idea for a post, and very timely. I was going to say Conrad but you have included him! George Orwell was born in India, not sure if that counts? Then there are a host of other great Irish writers including Beckett and Shaw.

  2. Kate
    February 20, 2017

    It’s the migrant writers who lived and worked in the UK who count, so Beckett is dubious, Shaw absolutely. Orwell was already English, he was just born out there.

  3. Kenny
    February 20, 2017

    I always thought the statue of Oscar Wilde near Kings Cross that describes him as “British Author” was a bit rubbish as the “British” government sentenced him to prison and ultimately an untimely death.

  4. Michelle Ann
    February 20, 2017

    Roald Dahl was actually born in Wales

  5. Kate
    February 20, 2017

    Norwegian parents, though. That counts.

  6. Kate
    February 20, 2017

    It wasn’t the British government that sentenced him, but English law (maintained by a British government, yes I know.)

  7. elizabethmaddenlitblog
    February 22, 2017

    Reblogged this on elizabethmaddenreads.

  8. Mary Hollern
    February 23, 2017

    Oscar Wilde, who was definitely Irish…his mother was editor of the Irish Nationalist paper the Nation for a time…whilst Charles Gavan Duffy was in prison.

  9. Pop Culture Literary
    May 17, 2017

    This was a delightful post. I hadn’t realized that some of these writers were immigrants, so I learned some unexpected things today! Thank you for that.

    After scouring my favorite authors to see where each of them is or was from, I have to admit that none of them are or were immigrants. I read authors from all over the world– Eoin Colfer, Shaun Tan, Arundhati Roy, Haruki Murakami, Markus Zusak… the list goes on. None of these writers are or were immigrants, however. This was a fun exercise.

    I did begin reading a book by an immigrant recently, however (I’ve put the book on hold. As expected, it is a difficult read). She’s more of a refugee than a willing re-locator, but I figured that this distinction wouldn’t negate her invitation to the party. I would have to invite Malala Yousafzai to the party, but I don’t know if she would accept an alcoholic beverage, so I would be certain to have delicious sparkling cider on-hand!

  10. Pingback: Now posting on Vulpes Libris: Let’s celebrate the migrant authors of English literature – Kate Macdonald

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This entry was posted on February 20, 2017 by in Entries by Kate, Migration and tagged , , .



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