A diverse crowd mills through the book stalls at Lighthouse’s Radical Book Fair, vending forward-thinking literature from new voices as well as beloved authors – illustrated children’s stories on Greta Thunberg to the works of Engels are on offer, an indication that the event is truly radical.
The crowd fills the seats rapidly in anticipation of Priyamvada Gopal to speak on her newest project – Insurgent Empire: Anti-Colonial and British Dissent. This is Gopal’s third book following on from more literary works, Literary Radicalism and The Indian English Novel. Gopal and her interviewer take their seats and introduce the event, which focuses on key readings from the new work as well as conversation from the audience.
Gopal begins by introducing the origins of the work, citing a need to create a whole response to her critics such as Niall Ferguson, who she has previously debated with. She goes on to dissect the notion of freedom and what it connotes. Gopal discusses how ‘freedom’ in an anti-colonial context as well as today has come to mean a freedom to consume and sell as part of our capitalist machine. This dissection and clear critique of capitalism resonates with the audience, with laughter and the nodding of heads visible throughout the room.
Gopal delivers and unpacks some central readings covering key elements of her book, including the idea of ‘reverse tutelage’- given by the colonised to the coloniser, a concept that is a running thread through the work and the discussion taking place. The audience remains thoughtfully engaged, especially as Gopal makes comparisons between historical events and current political turmoil. She comments on Nigel Farage’s ‘pseudo anti-colonial rhetoric’, which reduces the history of anti-colonial resistance to simply a matter of sovereignty. She makes very clear this was not the case – rather, the resistance was far more specific, focusing on issues such as worker’s rights. These relevant observations she makes seem to resonate deeply with the crowd in this politically formative time in the UK.
Questions from the audience allow the topics covered to be far more interactive, with questions ranging from the areas of knowledge production in the colonial context and Gopal’s thoughts on the decolonisation of British universities. These areas particularly engage the many students that appear to be in attendance as the critical theory Gopal discusses directly relates to our everyday.
Altogether, the historical yet deeply relevant message Gopal aims to deliver in this book and the discussion creates interesting discussion especially due to the time given to audience engagement with the concepts she explains. This makes for a truly thought-provoking event which feels needed in our literary and political discourse.
Priyamvada Gopal spoke in Edinburgh on 16 November 2019 as part of Lighthouse’s 23rd annual Radical Book Fair.
Image: Penguin Random House