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I was reading Walter Rodney's essay "The Historical Roots of African Underdevelopment" in Decolonial Marxism when I came across this passage:
"Central and South American gold and silver played a crucial role in meeting the need for coin in the expanding capitalist money economy, while African gold was also significant in this respect. African gold helped the Portuguese to finance further navigations around the Cape of Good Hope and into Asia; it was the main source for the Dutch mint in the seventeenth century (which helped to secure Amsterdam as the financial capital of Europe in that period); and it is no coincidence that when the English struck a new gold coin in 1663 they called it the 'guinea'."
"What is a guinea?" a student in my seventh-grade English class asked recently. We had just read that the rich old lady Miss Havisham was giving the young Pip twenty-five guineas as a premium for apprenticing him to a blacksmith in Charles Dickens' Great Expectations. I explained that a guinea was one pound and one shilling. There was much more that could have been said, but I did not know then that the name of the coin was directly derived from Europe's economic exploitation of Africa, in particular West Africa, through extractive capitalism.
And even if I did know, would I have paused our study of this great Bildungsroman to take my students down this sidetrack of European colonialism? There are so many wonderful details, of plot, character, and language, in Great Expectations to lavish our attention on, and there is so little time to look at them all. The guinea is not an unimportant detail if we remember that Miss Havisham's fortune came from not only landed property but also the family brewery, the same business that kept the English working class sloshed and servile. Indeed, Pip grows up and redeems his sin of ambition by working in ship insurance in Cairo to lubricate the sea-lanes of the British empire. Class oppression is joined with imperial domination in the guinea.
This is a constant dilemma when teaching an Eurocentric text: because it transposes an important history into minor details, a teacher seems to need special justification or to pursue a special agenda if they dwell on the margins of the text, whereas the main "story," of bourgeois personal development, appears to be free of ideology. By not spending a minute on the guinea, I have missed the opportunity of teaching my students to read more critically. More, I have missed the opportunity of showing my students the importance of reading texts that do not center Europe.
I first met Rachael Briggs on-line, over at the internet poetry workshop Poetry Free-for-all. I have been a workshop member for years, even before I moved to the States in 2003. When Rachael found us and started posting her poems for critique, I was drawn to her voice (witty, interrogative, unafraid) and her artful ways with poetic forms. Once PFFA opened its Collaboration Ark, she and I decided to enter Howard's ship and write a renga (Japanese linked form) together. At that time, having moved from upstate NY, she was living in Australia, and so was leading an expatriate life, as I was, and still am, in NYC. She loved the natural environment down under, and many exotic animals, birds and plants soon found their way into her poetry. We thought we could carry our antipodean seasonal references into the renga, and thus convey the enormous distance that was covered by our collaboration. The renga "Steep Tea" has become the title poem of my new book. We enjoyed writing
The essay appears in Volume II of Sharing Borders: Studies in Contemporary Singaporean-Malaysia Literature , itself a part of the series Writing Asia: The Literatures in Englishes . In the essay, instead of rehashing the tired discourse of nationalism in the poetry of earlier Singaporean poets, Gwee focuses on younger poets who published their first books in 1997 and later. Relatively free from the control of both State and University, these poets put out, with the help of independent publishers, a series of works that have re-energized Singaporean writing. A chronology: 1997 - Alvin Pang's Testing the Silence , Aaron Lee's A Visitation of Sunlight , and Yong Shu Hoong's Isaac . 1998 - Grace Chia's Womango , Alfian Sa'at's One Fierce Hour , Felix Cheong's Temptation and Other Poems , Damien Sin's Saints, Sinners and Singaporeans and Gwee's Who Wants to Buy a Book of Poems? 1999 - Felix Cheong's I Watch the Stars Go Out , Daren Shiau's
I've just revised a poem written years ago, a poem that delineates the different responses of four readers, of different generations, to the seminal nationalistic poem by Edwin Thumboo . Thumboo is reckoned to be the first major Singaporean poet writing in English. First, Thumboo's poem, then followed by mine. ULYSSES BY THE MERLION (for Maurice Baker) I have sailed many waters, Skirted islands of fire, Contended with Circe Who loved the squeal of pigs; Passed Scylla and Charybdis To seven years with Calypso, Heaved in battle against the gods. Beneath it all I kept faith with Ithaca, travelled, Travelled and travelled, Suffering much, enjoying a little; Met strange people singing New myths; made myths myself. But this lion of the sea Salt-maned, scaly, wondrous of tail, Touched with power, insistent On this brief promontory... Puzzles. Nothing, nothing in my days Foreshadowed this Half-beast, half-fish, This powerful creature of land and sea. Peoples settled here, Brought