From the inside looking out you can never see how it looks from the outside looking in

This time last week I was deep in the intellectual buffet that is the Hay (formerly known as Literary) Festival in Wales. Spanning just over a week its a proper smorgasbord of talks from incredibly talented authors, with a smattering of politicians, scientists, musicians and other entertainers mixed in for good measure. As a proper book addict who is dangerously close to filling her eighth bookshelf – with no immediately obvious space for a ninth – it was literally my heaven.

Whilst Margaret Atwood discussing her Handmaid’s Tale had to take top spot, I would be hard pressed to choose a clear second between the other events I attended, because they were. Just. All. So. Good. My reading wish list for at least the next couple of months is completely full up.

That said, there were two authors whose stories especially struck me, each discussing something seemingly quite different yet with a common shared vein.

The first was the insanely impressive Afua Hirsch discussing her book ‘Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging’, described on the inner fold as a “personal and provocative investigation…a search for identity…about the everyday racism that plagues British society…You’re British. Your parents are British. You were raised in Britain.. So why do people keep asking you where you are from?”

I’m about 67 pages into reading her book, but the opening – and her excellent talk at Hay – centres around what she refers to as The Question (deliberately capitalised)

If I were to single out the most persistent reminder of that sense of not belonging, it would be The Question: “Where are you from?”…The Question is rarely posed out of malice or with any ill will. Yet being asked where you’re from in your own country is a daily ritual of unsettling…The Question (is) never the first thing white people get asked in a regular social encounter…The Question is reserved for people who look different.

The second author was Classicist Emily Wilson, who has just published a new translation of the Odyssey. As a former student of Ancient Greek I’ve read more than a few – Fagles still being my favourite – but it’s fair to say it’s not that often a new Homeric publication makes national headlines. Wilson’s did. Why? Because she’s a woman and it’s been billed as the first female translation. Wilson is actually quick to point out it’s not, it’s the first into English, but women have translated Homeric texts into other languages before. She also pointed out that nearly every headline written about her book focused on her gender, as did a lot of the respective interviewer’s questioning.

Men have gender identities too. Why don’t we ever ask male scholars, male historians, male translators how their gender effects their work?

This idea of being treated as an outsider, inherently yet unconsciously characterised as something ‘other’ to the norm through the language we use, the questions we ask, set my brain synapses firing, trying to remember what else it was that I had recently read which described this exact issue in relation to women and work.

After a little delving around my brain and my bookshelves, I remembered today that it was Mary Beard, another fabulous Classicist, in ‘Women and Power’, (which I have written two other blog posts on relatively recently; its good enough to warrant more than a few), where she writes:

“Women are still perceived as belonging outside power. Whether we sincerely want them to get to the inside of it or whether, by various often unconscious means, we cast women as interlopers when they make it (I still remember a Cambridge where, in most colleges, the women’s loos were tucked away across two courts, through the passage and down the stairs in the basement), the shared metaphors we use of female access to power – knocking on the door, storming the citadel, smashing the glass ceiling, or just giving them a leg up – underline female exteriority. Women in power are seen as breaking down barriers, or alternatively as taking something to which they are not quite entitled.”

I don’t have a particularly poignant conclusion to this post – perhaps I will find it at the end of Afua’s book – but I have been very struck by this notion of the unseen, unintentional way that language can reinforce the idea of groups of people being outsiders. I’m sure I’m guilty of asking The Question, out of genuine curiosity towards the people I meet, and I know I naturally ‘play up’ women being women, including about myself, because I think it is just awesome to see more women in places, meetings, discussions where they historically wouldn’t have been included (you don’t even want to know about the recent detailed technical architecture meetings I have been invited to). But these three author’s stories have made me think more deeply about the language I use and the unconscious bias that it goes on to reinforce.

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