ESEA Heritage Month 2023: Books to Read and Films to Watch

Dr Saffron Vickers Walkling introduces titles to look out for this ESEA Heritage Month and beyond.  Saffron lived and worked in China for five years, and their research area includes late twentieth century Chinese Shakespeare in performance.

September is East and South East Asian Heritage Month. Founded in 2021 by Britain’s East and South East Asian Network (besea.n), it commemorates “those who have contributed positively to British society” and celebrates “the richness of ESEA culture”, says Michelle Chan. 

In alphabetical order, East Asian and South East Asian countries include: Brunei, Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, Macau, Malaysia, Mongolia, North Korea, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, the Philippines, Timor-Leste, and Vietnam. 

Besea.n say that their “vision is one where our communities are seen and supported in all spaces”. This includes the sold out ESEA Lit Fest at Foyles Bookshop in London, which started on 23rd September 2023.    

Here are some highlights from their Reading List: 

A Lover's DiscourseA Lover’s Discourse by Xiaolu Guo tells of a Chinese woman’s life in London, reflecting on the nature of cross-cultural love and language. The title references Roland Barthes’ book of the same name, and its Cantonese film adaptation. Novelist and filmmaker Guo came to YSJ in 2008 as part of our China Week to speak about her debut English-language novel A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, which our first years were studying on their Gender and Writing module. Although not a sequel, A Lover’s Discourse revisits and reframes many of the tropes of the earlier book. Her film She, A Chinese is also currently showing on Channel 4. 

Night Sky with Exit WoundsNight Sky with Exit Wounds is a collection of poetry by the Vietnamese-American writer and academic Ocean Vuong, reflecting on his refugee experience – both its horrors and its wonders.

Vuong’s novel On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous sustained us through the long holiday of 2021 as our Big Summer Read. See more here.


YellowfaceIf you want something that will shock and amuse you in equal measures, check out Yellowface by R. F. Kuang, a hilarious satire on the ultimate in literary cultural appropriation…

This bestseller combines big ideas with humour and is simultaneously thought-provoking and immensely readable! 



Never Let Me GoIf you’ve never read Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, then now is the time to remedy this.

A firm A-level favourite for many years, Ishiguro’s novel about a group of young people at an English boarding school quickly reveals the dystopian side of its apparent idyllic setting. 



Ping Pong (1986 film) - WikipediaIf it’s film you are interested in, Channel 4 has a selection for ESEA, including the first ever British Chinese feature film, Ping Pong, which I’ve reviewed here. “Elaine Choi (Sheen), a trainee lawyer tasked with executing the will of local businessman Sam Wong, whose body has been found in a telephone box, receiver still in hand. The trouble is, she can’t read Chinese characters.”



You can find Film 4’s complete ESEA listings here:

#PRIDE2023: SHAKESPEARE? MORE LIKE SHAKESQUEER! RuPaul’s Drag Race by Roger Tomas Arques

Drag Queen RuPaul in Shakespeare inspired drag
Image via @RuPaulsDragRace

“To she, or not to she?” Spanish ERASMUS exchange student Roger Tomas Arques recently took our Shakespeare Perspectives module. For Pride Season 2023, he looks at the connections between Shakespeare’s theatre and Ru Paul’s Drag Race

Recently, I was watching RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars 8’s new episode as I do every Friday and then I thought something. Did you know that when watching RuPaul’s Drag Race you are seeing a Shakespearean thing? 

Image from the British Library collection: Mark Rylance getting into costume as Olivia for Shakespeare’s Globe’s all male production of Twelfth Night.

“Drag may trace its roots to the age of William Shakespeare, when female roles were performed by men”. In Shakespeare’s times, women were not allowed to be on stage, so men were playing women’s roles. During those days acting was not considered a very refined work, so if a woman acted, she would be considered a sex worker. As Shakespeare’s contemporary said, “Our Players are not as the players beyond sea, a sort of squirting baudie Comedians.” (Thomas Nashe) However, it was not just a costumes thing. The writer had to find men that could perfectly represent a woman with their gestures, movements, and so on.

Now drag has changed and everyone can do it.   Continue reading “#PRIDE2023: SHAKESPEARE? MORE LIKE SHAKESQUEER! RuPaul’s Drag Race by Roger Tomas Arques”

Tommy Parker on Ageing, Maturity and Embracing Change

Content warning: This personal reflection deals with issues of PTSD and suicidal thoughts. Links for support are provided at the bottom of the post. 

 Second Year Creative Writing student Tommy Parker reflects upon his own experiences as a mature student returning to York St John to begin a second degree course. 

Copyright York St John

Walking through the city, enjoying a 71% Ecuador hot chocolate with chilli and Captain Morgans, while listening to Alestorm has given me a rare chance for silent reflection. The theme of this years creative writing project, the Beyond the Wall’s anthology, is ageing, a subject that is often on my mind as a mature student. In particular, I often find myself dwelling on my perceived failings, feeling I have not accomplished enough in my late twenties to justify my continued existence on this planet. It is in rare moments such as now that give me the opportunity to escape my own head, allowing me clarity to see that life is not a line graph. Age does not equal maturity in itself, and you cannot simply look at a graph for it. Life is not as simple as AGE + MATURITY = STAGE IN LIFE. Over my time at York St John I have come to understand that the true determining factor of emotional maturity is life experience. Continue reading “Tommy Parker on Ageing, Maturity and Embracing Change”

Michael Colk: Macbeth Review for YISF

Flabbergast Macbeth (c) Mike Lynch

Michael is a second year Creative Writing and Media student at York St John and a volunteer blog reviewer for York International Shakespeare Festival. In this review, Michael looks at Flabbergast Theatre’s production of ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’ performed in the York St John Creative Centre on the 26th of April 2023. 

Shakespeare gets a bad reputation in my opinion. From the time were born we are told that he was and is the greatest writer that has ever come from this country, that every work he’s ever written is a masterpiece. So we must diligently study his texts and analyse them, we must perform them with the utmost respect for the source material. This leads to a lot of people hating Shakespeare and condemning it as dry or boring or too difficult to understand or… you get the idea. But actually, Shakespeare can be fun. 

I’ve always loved Macbeth, I studied it in high school so it’s one of the few Shakespeare plays I actually know and understand. I’ve always loved Lady Macbeth as a character, the ideas of betrayal and guilt that get explored, the context in which the play itself was written, but I’ve never seen that many performances of it. I watched a few films that played with the setting but not in any way other than superficially and there was a touring group who performed a few fight scenes from it in my school assembly hall which was quite entertaining, but this was the first time I’d seen a full stage production of it and I really enjoyed it. 

The whole thing felt like watching a bunch of kids playing pretend in the muddy parts of some dense woods. It really hit me in the scene where Macbeth kills Duncan, the actors all pulled out small sticks for daggers and it reminded me of running through this forest near the top of the street of my childhood home. I’d brandish my own sticks as swords and duel with my sister or use them as ways of clearing my treacherous path on the long (short) journey it took to walk down to the corner shop to claim my reward (a pick a mix bag usually containing a jelly snake, my favourite). Despite the tragedy of the story, the performers all seemed to be so joyous and enthusiastic about what they were doing, they had the permission to run around, shout and scream just as kids do.

Macbeth and witches
Flabbergast Macbeth (c) Mike Lynch

It also brought back these ideas of the roots of storytelling sitting around a fire in the darkness, the primal and animalistic nature that is inherent in performance. At times, the whole show felt like one big ritual, the witches and supernatural being such a strong part of the original play definitely contributed to this but the rhythmic chanting and general atmosphere brought by the performers made it a much more intimate experience. At times it was almost psychedelic, with lights and shadows being cast everywhere, the only thing I think could have made it more intense would have been a fog machine.

The one thing I was anticipating the entire time throughout the show was the Porter’s scene that takes place just after Duncan’s murder. The Porter is there to add levity to the otherwise dark narrative and in my experience often goes overlooked when read or performed because as we all know ‘Shakespeare is a prestigious institution’. But I think a few lewd jokes after a murder has just taken place is quite necessary. I can honestly say that in this performance, the Porter’s scenes were some of my favourite moments. These scenes were the only point at which the script diverged from the original but it still captured the same humour of the source material. It again reminded me of a child, running about making jokes out of nothing and interjecting at inappropriate moments because they don’t know any better. 

So, despite the dark and tragic nature of Macbeth and the play itself I would have to say that this production did indeed make Shakespeare fun.

If you would like to read another review of ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’, check out Grace Laidler’s piece on the Words Matter Blog: Grace Laidler: Macbeth Review for YISF – Words Matter. (

“Uncut Leaves”: On Literature and Its Uses – 2022 Words Matter Lecture on YouTube

The Annual Words Matter Lecture on YouTube

You might be interested to know that Dr Adam J Smith’s Words Matter lecture is available to view and listen on YouTube: click here!

Adam’s lecture in October last year considered the “uses” of literature as protest, propaganda and satire, and warned of the dangers of not reading the book. It was a fantastic event, so if you missed it, catch up – or if you’d like to relive the moment, watch again!

Grace Laidler: Macbeth Review for YISF

Grace is a first year Film and Television Production student at York St John and a volunteer blog reviewer for York International Shakespeare Festival. In this review, Grace looks at Flabbergast Theatre’s production of ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’ performed in the York St John Creative Centre on the 26th of April 2023. 

Flabbergast Theatre’s ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’ creates an unsettling yet powerful retelling of one of Shakespeare’s most violent tragedies, leaving you feeling unseam’d from the nave to the chops.

Flabbergast Theatre Macbeth (c) Mike Lynch

Before the audience are seated, the performers immediately plunge us into their unconventional methods, telling us the story of the tragedy through a series of interpretive dances and nonsensical sounds. Standouts from this prologue are the formation of hands used above Macbeth’s head to form a crown and the use of the long skirts pulled over the performers heads to create what looks like a ghost-like  being crawling eerily around the stage.

These long skirts are part of the barren, arresting aesthetic adopted by Flabbergast, reminiscent of Robert Eggers’ 2022 film ‘The Northman.’ The stage is dressed only with a stained white sheet on the floor. The simplicity of the set allows the performers to have a much creative freedom as possible to create a visceral show, as there is more than one instance when a wine-like substance is either spat onto the sheet or into the face of another performer.

Each cast member wears a pair of pants underneath the long skirts, allowing for them to effectively switch between characters seamlessly with minimal physical changes. As the performance only consisted of six performers, many performers doubled in roles. A standout for me was Briony O’Callaghan’s chilling performance as Lady Macbeth, but also as one of the Weird Sisters. Her demeanour when playing both roles did not differ too greatly, which I believe positively added to the notion of Lady Macbeth’s cruelty being witch-like. Her delivery of Lady Macbeth’s final soliloquy was impeccable, and I was holding my breath at the prospect of her holding a lit candle so close to a highly-flammable sheet.

Another standout performance was that of Dale Wylde, who transformed the tragedy into a pantomime with his performance as The Porter, the dreaded character of GCSE students everywhere. His take on The Porter saw him as a clown, who broke the fourth wall and brought us to tears of laughter by simply showing us an apple. However, one of the most profound and horrifying moments was when Wylde portrayed a soldier that had just brutally murdered Macduff’s wife, then immediately snaps back into becoming the joking Porter again. The apple was back, but the laughter was a lot shakier this time.

The performance incorporates plenty of horror elements, particularly with the lighting. There is a harsh front light that is used to brightly illuminate the faces of whoever is giving a monologue, making their faces look gaunt and hollow. It accentuates the madness seen in the eyes of Macbeth in particular, who is often lit by a bloody red lighting that makes him impossible to look away from. Alongside its effect on the performers, this front lighting creates a shadow on the black curtain behind the stage, creating a spooky, haunting element to the show that unsettles us even further.

The most horrifying element of all is the use of a wooden puppet boy, used to depict Banquo’s son Fleance. The prop has no head, which is instead depicted with a white mask, and is carried around the stage using a large wooden stick or is cradled in the arms of the performers. It is a fascinating choice to use such abstract puppetry and it certainly became a talking point for most audience members. The bottom line on that is that it needs to be seen to be believed.

The performance is accompanied by the use three large drums, a set of gongs and smaller chime instruments, which are all visibly noticeable on-stage. All of these instruments are utilised heavily, alongside an acapella-style score created by the performers. It is truly impressive how the performers can morph from actor to crew member, using their musical skills to make scenes more exciting and immersive.

Overall, Flabbergast’s ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’ can take a while to get into due to its overwhelming nature, but once you are immersed, you will want to stay to the bloody end. It has everything you could want in a Shakespeare adaptation: enough fidelity to the original text so that you will understand the story and hear those wonderfully crafted lines; but also offers a fresh, modern twist through the use of horror elements, barren sets and highly unconventional props. I would recommend it, although you might sleep no more.

Works Cited

The Tragedy of Macbeth by W. Shakespeare (2023) Directed by H. Maynard [York St John University, York. 26 April].

The Northman (2022) Directed by R. Eggers. [Feature film]. Universal City, CA: Universal Pictures.

If you would like to read another review of ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’, check out Jenny-Rose Morrison’s piece on the York International Shakespeare Festival’s website: Life’s But A Walking Shadow: A Review of Flabbergast’s Macbeth by Jenny-Rose Morrison – York International Shakespeare Festival (

York International Shakespeare Festival at York St John University, Week 9.

York International Shakespeare Festival runs between 21st April and 1st May 2023. 

A message from Dr Saffron Vickers Walking, York International Shakespeare Festival Advisor and Senior Lecturer in English Literature at York St John University.    

are delighted to continue working closely with the York International Shakespeare Festival (@YorkShakes) for its 2023 edition. This year, we have a number of exciting, award-winning productions coming to the main stage in our new Creative Centre, and we are honoured to be showcasing the production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream from Ukraine. Alongside this we are hosting workshops, readings, talks, displays and our afternoon exploring Shakespeare (andSanctuary. This festival aligns closely with York St John University’s commitment to social justice, inclusion and diversity, and in these sometimes divisive times, we celebrate how Shakespeare can bring us together. So come and join us!  Booking information below. If you are on social media, please follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

York International Shakespeare Festival have ensured that the tickets for all events at York St John venues are affordable to encourage student and community engagement. We have a small number of complimentary tickets for any York St John student who is facing financial hardship in this cost of living crisis. We also have some complimentary tickets for volunteers. Please email Saffron as soon as possible. Scroll down for the email address and for information about volunteering opportunities.  The festival has also provided a number of work placements for students on the department’s employability module.

We also have a Pass It On ticket scheme to support refugees and asylum seekers finding sanctuary in Yorkshire to attend the productions at York St John University. In particular, we anticipate strong interest in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, so please consider getting a ticket to pass on, and sharing this scheme with your contacts. Further details here.

Productions here at York St John University’s Creative Centre

Macbeth and witches
Flabberghast Macbeth (c) Mike Lynch

Macbeth by Flabbergast Theatre, 8pm Wednesday 26th April, concessions £5. Information and ticket booking here. Playing to their strengths and background in puppetry, clown, mask, ensemble and physical theatre, Flabbergast have developed their first text-based production (with extensive R&D with Wilton’s Musical Hall London and Grotowski Institute Poland) to foster the bard’s original text accompanied by and supported with exhilarating live music to produce a provocative and enjoyably accessible show. In English.


Titania the fairy queen
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (c) Molodyy

A Midsummer Night’s Dream by the Kyiv National Academic Molodyy Theatre, 8pm Friday 28th April, concessions £5. Information and ticket booking here. How does the well-known romantic comedy by Shakespeare sound in the context of a Ukrainian traditional rite? In the global narrative, we locate the key to the national code and adapt it to the present. We establish parallels with our historical stories by changing the major characters from Greeks to Ukrainians.

A man in a VR mask with outspread arms
Truth’s A Dog Must to Kennel (c) Stuart Armitt

Other events include:

Molodyy Theatre Open Workshop for Actors and Theatre Makers (you can be an audience member for this), 10am Saturday 29th April. Pay what you can. Information and ticket booking here. Followed by Molodyy Theatre Making Theatre In Ukraine Today Q&A, 12 noon Saturday 29th April. Pay what you can. Information and ticket booking here.

Shakespeare (and) Sanctuary curated by Saffron Vickers Walkling and Nicoleta Cinpoes. 2pm Saturday 29th April. Free. Information and booking here. An afternoon of talks, presentations and discussion exploring elements of Shakespeare and Social Justice, presented by York St John University, the European Shakespeare Research Association and the York International Shakespeare Festival.

If you are interested in global work inspired by Shakespeare, then you can attend the free introduction to and staged reading of Marin Sorecu’s play Cousin Shakespeare, translated from Romanian into English. 4.30 and 6pm, Wednesday 26th April. Information and booking here.

York St John’s library will also have a display to reflect the York International Shakespeare Festival and showcase our resources.

There are many other wonderful events across the city of York – click here for the full York International Shakespeare Festival programme and here for the York International Shakespeare Festival Brochure . There is an all-day sonnet marathon, Shakespeare stand-up, community theatre, Shakespeare’s Fool, Riding Light’s production of Richard III, book launches, European plays in translation, symposium, Shakespeare storytelling for children, theatre workshops, exhibitions and more – so something for everyone. 

YSJ Volunteering Opportunities: 

We have a number of exciting volunteer opportunities for you and would love to hear from you as soon as possible!

Be a part of our FOCUS GROUP: go to between 4 and 8 events across the festival, including some of the productions at YSJ, and we will follow up with a couple of meetings with you to discuss your feedback (and some simple forms for you to fill in to help us get an idea of the impact of the festival). We have some complimentary tickets available.  

Write a blog post for either the English Literature blog, Words Matter, or the YorkShakes blog. Let us know which play or event you would like to review. We have some complimentary tickets available.  

Please email Saffron for either of these options:  

YISF Volunteering Opportunities:

There are many and varied volunteer opportunities festival wide, including festival preparation in the run up to the festival and front of house during the festival. Email Artistic Director Philip Parr for further details:  

International Women’s Day by Polly Reed

Polly Reed is a second year undergraduate student on the English Literature programme at York St John University. She is also a feminist poet. Here she reflects on her experience of going back to visit her high school for International Women’s Day.

‘A Man’s World’ by Polly Reed

I was recently asked to go into my old school (Ponteland High School), for international women’s day to talk to 40 young women on my experiences since leaving school and my writing career. My school nominated me two years ago for an award for international women’s day and I won the Northumberland’s most inspirational young women’s award due to my sporting and academic achievements, whilst also being noticed for my volunteering work. I had previously helped my mum coach children and young adults with disabilities, developing their social and physical skills that are crucial in everyday life. I had also volunteered as a netball coach at the local primary school, whilst being a part of the charity committee in sixth form. Being noticed for this was a huge privilege, and it was through this event I heard about other women’s experiences, and what they do to raise awareness on important topical issues.

This was one of the events that inspired me to voice my own opinions and experiences on being a woman. Since then, I’ve done many open mics, sharing my own feminist poetry to diverse audiences. The response I’ve received from many individuals has encouraged me to continue writing poetry and fiction in the hopes that other women can relate to my work and educate others on the injustices that women experience.

‘Sweetly-Sour Girlhood’ by Polly Reed

I was thrilled to be invited back to school and have this opportunity to share my work with students, whilst encouraging them to write, voice, and think about their own opinion on feminist matters. The event included a range of women who were spreading awareness on important matters. For example, a solicitor, business owner and a probation officer. One woman had created a business using wasted plastic to create art, showing the environmental impact waste can have.

The feedback I got on my poetry from the students was incredible. Many of them had questions on how I go about writing, where I get my inspiration from, and what made me want to express and explore these matters within my writing. To see so many young girls intrigued and interested in the themes explored within my work was hugely rewarding, and I hope the sharing of my poetry and the discussions we had, encourages them to use and find their own voice on the inequality that occurs towards women.

YSJ Lit Interview: Departmental Prizewinner Adam Kirkbride

Dr Saffron Vickers Walkling interviews Adam Kirkbride (he/they). Adam was the 2021 York St John Literature English Literature Undergraduate Dissertation Prize Winner AND the English Literature Undergraduate Programme Prize for achieving the highest degree classification marks in both categories on their programme. Adam has gone on to study on our MA in Contemporary Literature and is completing their second year of part-time study.

Graduates in their robes celebrate outside York Minster
Adam and his friends celebrate graduating with their BA degrees outside York Minster

Adam, tell us a bit about yourself, what you are studying with us and why?

I’ve been at York St John since 2018 when I started my BA in English Literature. Finishing my degree during the pandemic and a lot of personal turbulence meant that I was unsure about what the future would bring. I’d thought about doing an MA for a while and several of the YSJ literature staff encouraged me to do one here, so I applied, and the rest is history! Now I’m in my final year of my MA in Contemporary Literature and I cannot believe that it’s been nearly five years since I arrived here.

Can you tell us about your awards and what they mean to you?

The awards I received on graduation meant more to me than I can express. My final year of undergraduate study was incredibly difficult due to a range of personal circumstances and knowing that I still managed to do well was an amazing feeling.

You are doing your MA as a part-time student. What have been the challenges of part-time study? What have been the benefits?

Truly, the main challenge and benefit has been the same: I get to work full-time in a job that I love alongside my studies. Working for a charity is very demanding, and so is post-graduate study! I don’t think I anticipated how difficult juggling full-time work and part-time study would be in reality, especially around deadlines. Avoiding burn-out has been a challenge. On the other hand, the MA here at YSJ is timetabled so classes are later in the evenings, meaning I can be flexible in my study and get to commit my 9-5 hours to my job working for Foundation UK in their +Choices (Positive Choices) service, and my evenings and weekends to my study. Continue reading “YSJ Lit Interview: Departmental Prizewinner Adam Kirkbride”

Dr Sarah Lawson Welsh: Reflection on Black History Month and the Ones We Leave Out, Part 2

A display of books by Afro Caribbean writers with a picture and a Rasta Mouse toy
Caribbean Writing #BlackHistoryMonth Image (c) Dr Sarah Lawson Welsh

In the second of two blog posts looking back at Black History Month, Dr. Sarah Lawson Welsh discusses the importance of the representation of Caribbean writers and artists. She is an Associate Professor and Reader in English and Postcolonial Literature in the School of Humanities, and has written widely on this topic. You can read her first blog post here.

I think it is fair to say that the nationalist agendas of Caribbean writing and the role of black writers and thinkers in mid-twentieth century independence movements are much less well known than the American civil rights movement of the same era, even though there are some parallels between the two. Even such intellectual giants of the Anglophone Caribbean tradition, writers and thinkers such as Guyanese Wilson Harris (1921-2018) and Trinidadian C.L.R. James (1901-1989), are little known outside of specialist academic circles. Yet Harris, a former land surveyor who had worked in the Amazonian rainforest was writing about environmental issues and conceptualizing new ways of thinking about space, time and memory in relation to pre- and post-Columbian contexts as early as the 1960s. Even earlier in the century, in the 1930s Continue reading “Dr Sarah Lawson Welsh: Reflection on Black History Month and the Ones We Leave Out, Part 2”

Dr Sarah Lawson Welsh: Reflection on Black History Month and the Ones We Leave Out, Part 1

a white woman with long blonde hair smiles at the camera
Dr Sarah Lawson Welsh

In the first of two blog posts looking back at Black History Month, Dr. Sarah Lawson Welsh introduces her choices for the display in the York St John library foyer. She is an Associate Professor & Reader in English and Postcolonial Literature in the School of Humanities, and has written widely on this topic. Read her second blog post here.

Every year the Library and the Learning services team put on a black history month (BHM) display with a new topic every week. This year, Marcia Sanderson, a former BA English and MA in Contemporary Literature student who works in the library, contacted me to ask if I had any black British and Caribbean book or film suggestions, based on my teaching and research specialisms in these areas. The topics the library and learning services had chosen were: hidden black historical figures, black authors speaking back to literature and film, staff picks – our favourite texts by black authors and black people in cinema and horror films. Continue reading “Dr Sarah Lawson Welsh: Reflection on Black History Month and the Ones We Leave Out, Part 1”

Words Matter Prize Winner 2022 Announced

This year’s Words Matter Prize has been awarded to BA English Literature &a student's hands flicking through papers and books Film Student Liam Durbin. The prize recognises outstanding academic achievement by students completing the first year of their degree.

Level Four co-ordinator Dr Fraser Mann says that:

“Liam’s dedication to his studies and his participation in university life are admirable. He has made rapid and remarkable progress in his studies and deserves real recognition for this success.”

On receiving news of the award, Liam said:

“Receiving the Words Matter Prize genuinely means the world to me. A few years ago, just being able to study at university was something that felt beyond me entirely, so to receive this now is simply incredible. I feel endlessly grateful to every lecturer, tutor, friend and family member that have helped get me through university so far. Thank you so much.”

Liam will receive his award during this year’s Words Matter Lecture. We would like to congratulate him on his success and wish him all the best for the rest of his degree

Words Matter 2022: “Literature and Its Uses” with Dr Adam J. Smith

Join us for the fifth annual Words Matter Lecture on Thursday 10th November, at 5pm.

Book here for a free ticket. The event is open to all, and includes a drinks reception.

The Lecture


Drawing on his research exploring the role played by print in mediating the relationship between citizens and the state throughout the long eighteenth century, Dr Adam James Smith (Associate Professor, English Literature) will consider the “uses” of literature. Adam will introduce a series of case-studies in which literature was “used” for the purposes of propaganda, protest and satire during the eighteenth century, before examining the ways in which this same literature was used (and perhaps also abused) by readers and critics. Tracing a brief history of reading, misreading, deliberate misrepresentation and the active avoidance of reading, Adam will argue that most valuable “uses” of Literature arise from a deep, careful and sincere engagement with the form and substance of texts. Finally, the lecture will investigate recent advocations for the “use” of Literature as a means of promoting citizenship, empathy and social justice.

Dr Adam J Smith

Adam James Smith is an Associate Professor of English Literature, specialising in eighteenth-century print culture. Adam has a PhD from the University of Sheffield, where he also completed an AHRC-funded post-doctoral project before joining York St John University full-time in 2016. He has published on the works of Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, Eliza Haywood, James Montgomery and Virginia Woolf, amongst others. He has co-edited three volumes – Poetry Conspiracy and Radicalism in Sheffield (Spirit Duplicator, 2016), Print Culture, Agency and Regionality in the Handpress Era (Palgrave, 2022) and Impolite Periodicals (Bucknell, forthcoming). He is also currently a series editor for People of Print (Cambridge University Press), a multi-volume collection of printer biographies documenting the lives of individuals who were integral to the print industry but who have been, historically, less well represented.

Adam is also co-director of the York Research Unit for the Study of Satire, co-host of the ongoing monthly podcast Smith & Waugh Talk About Satire, he sits on the executive committee for the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (BSECS) and is chief editor of Criticks, the online reviews site for BSECS. His recent writing examines the relationship between politeness and satire and the character of the satirist across the long eighteenth century.


10 First-Year Texts That Shook Me, by Michaela Bosman

I’ll be honest: I chose to study literature to learn more about culture. Yes, that’s a broad statement. But, thanks to my religious and censored upbringing, I didn’t know much about anything other than Bible stories and virtuous allegories when I applied for the course.

To give you an idea of my ignorance, I wasn’t allowed to read or watch Lord of the Rings, and certainly not Harry Potter. At this point, references to either of those texts are hackneyed and eyeroll-inducing. Now my opportunity to partake in those conversations is over. It’s all because my religious bubble said that the magic wielded isn’t God’s, so it must be Satan’s. But it isn’t just magic that the church folks scorn. Any comment on society, say from Joyce, Dickens, or Orwell, means that these authors have an active interest in the ways of sinners. 

So, the texts I encountered during my first year at YSJU really did shake me (as I suggest in the title). It wasn’t because the contents shocked me, but because the texts entered me into new labyrinths of thought and meaning. Each text we study carries, not just the story it tells, but also a story of the time and place of its birth. It captures a moment in time, and echoes the voices of that period. As Dr Anne-Marie Evans says, all texts are intertextual. The texts we covered last year, and the discussions we had about them, made me want to read to infinity – but I’ll stick to ten. So, here are my top ten first-year texts, ordered by the level of impact they have on me, because favourites are for Buzz Feed.

1. Hanif Kureishi’s Buddha of Suburbia

Irreverent, colourful, and multifaceted, to tell you just one thing this novel does would be to do it a disservice. It says a lot about a lot – without telling you those things directly (because it’s quality writing). With a flippant and humorous tone, it critiques depths of society that many are too cautious to tread. In my essay about it, I focussed on its attack on a Marxist account of ideology – specifically, the ideology that whiteness is a constituent of Englishness. But this text does more than just promote diversity in England. It comments on different people’s approaches to racism. It points to individuality in a way that illuminates the humanity in each character. It highlights the infinite variations of the intersections of classes and races. And more.

But I’ve only got so much space for this blog post. The text’s multifarious critique of society is submerged in the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll of the seventies – it’s alive. Kureishi’s commentary is driven by the distinctiveness of each character, each of whom creates (by their peculiar life-choices) their unique modes of living. The problem I have with this novel, from an academic standpoint, is having to focus on just one aspect of it. It just has so much to say, in such a stylish way.

2. Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro’s Bitch Planet

This comic doesn’t hold back. It’s loud. It’s satirical. It’s feminist. Using the blueprint of exploitation cinema, it has at least three satirical targets, all of which are connected to feminism. It satirizes the insularity of the patriarchal hegemony, the women who follow the patriarchy’s prescription of femininity, and the comic book form which circulates mostly among boys, and encourages sexual objectification and voyeurism.

Its impact on me stems from the overt nature of its witty satire. The satire is in-your-face, but it’s intellectually stimulating too. Page after page, the text makes an adroit critique of the patriarchy that’s coded into the material structure of society and the way we think about our identities.

I’ll be honest, when it comes to visual satire, I’m used to seeing memes on Twitter. The bulk of Twitter memes have nothing on the wit of Bitch Planet, which makes it a compelling read. Yet, its attack is so acute that it boils my blood. I find myself disgusted by the depth from which women need to rise before we can reach true equality. Sure, Bitch Planet exaggerates, but I don’t think it’s inaccurate – and that’s the problem with (by which I mean success of) this text.

3. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart

This novel is powerful. Its force lies in the imagery of the single communal spirit that captures whole crowds (different from groupthink), but also in its layered meaning. Its complex and nuanced message is gestured at by its simplistic style, devoid of any literary pomp. I read it as the reconciliation of two narratives – those of the Nigerian Igbo clan and the colonial missionaries. Achebe says himself, in his essay collection, Morning Yet on Creation Day, that he aims to

“teach [his] readers that their past – with all its imperfections – is not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God’s behalf delivered them” (45).

 Achebe is writing in English while his intended readers are – judging by the above quotation – Nigerian, so he doesn’t dismiss all European practices. While he defends the Igbo culture against colonial notions of barbarism, found in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, he also employs his antihero to problematize traditionalism in the Igbo clan. With a feminist slant, his narrativity (which sometimes even his narrator is explicitly unaware of) urges us to dissect traditions and reconstruct them into more progressive structures – on either side of the cultural divide.

The narrative’s aim is to merge two people’s traditions, but it doesn’t reach that aim, alluding to the further work society needs to do. Things Fall Apart was published in 1958, and we’ve had sixty-four years to work out a way forward together. Yet circumstances in our current socio-political climate – from traditionalism to racism – are disappointingly similar to the ones in the novel.

4. John Fowles’s The Collector

I’d never understood the idea of a haunting text, because I’d never experienced a text that haunts me. That is, until I read The Collector. The text creates the feeling that there’s a supernatural presence hovering over me. It seems to live through all the characters, yet none of them. It certainly doesn’t die when I close the book. Perhaps this presence is the spectre of existentialism in excess. The text opens many doors of enquiry, without shutting them. I’d say this technique alludes to the unanswered questions of life’s meaning and purpose.

Miranda’s quest to define and become a real artist ends empty-handedly. Her hours of self-reflection that she writes in a diary, get buried in a chest and locked in an cellar by someone who’ll never read or understand them. But that’s a sub-plot which deals with individuals’ searches for meaning and purpose. There’s also a macro comment on the meaninglessness of classism. Fowles problematizes various ideological alliances as engendering hypocrisy and self-ignorance. Having sketched the problem with classist ideologies, The Collector also poses the question of whether it’s possible to become completely free of the identity we form as result of the class we are born into. It does all this, but I only realized that much later, because it still haunts me. The ghost takes shape over time as it hovers in the corner, insisting that it’s alive.

5. Poetry of Jonathan Swift and Lady Mary Montagu

Both of these figures are prominent satirists from the eighteenth century, and the poetry we looked at is a specific satirical exchange. It’s like today’s rap battles. Penning the scatological, as in earwax, snot, and excrement, Swift suggests that women are disgusting under their makeup and perfume, as if he’d got up close to a woman for the first time. In response, Montagu writes that the reason Swift wrote that poem is because he couldn’t get it up when he visited a prostitute and realized that she’s human. Montagu ends with a bang by having her character say, “I’m glad you’ll write. / You’ll furnish paper when I shite”. In other words, she says: yes, I do indeed defecate, and I’ll wipe my buttocks with your work. Well! that severed my ignorant assumption that all poetry is concerned with Romantic notions of elevated sensibility, nature, or sentiment.

So, is it any wonder that these poems take the fifth spot on my list by order of impact? I saw an eighteenth-century rap battle about poop and prostitution. It was so impactful that it spurred me to take the eighteenth-century module in second-year. In coming across these poems, I learned that – thanks to cheap print in the eighteenth-century which engendered wider public reading – this era was the birth of popular culture as we think of it today. Of course I wanted to learn the origin story of popular culture.

6. James Joyce’s, “The Dead”

This short story also haunts me. Not because it creates the feeling of a supernatural presence, but because the representation of the protagonist is imbedded in his every gesture and interaction with other characters – even the most minor ones. There are so many layers of meaning in each moment of the narrative, that unravelling it takes days. The discovery of its meaning is what haunts me. The fact that meaning lies in every action, every image, and every word choice, is what led me to see the formal mechanics of modernism. It draws attention to the wordy membrane through which meaning is expressed.

The wordy membrane in ‘The Dead’ also employs free indirect discourse that absorbs the voices of the characters while staying an objective narrator. This bolsters its status as a modernist text, because the free indirect discourse highlights the narrativity. Of course, the content of ‘The Dead’ critiques various socio-political issues, which is a feature of modernism. I’m more interested in its formal properties though. I suspect it’s because, thinking about the function of the diction opened me up to a way of reading that I’d never done before. Thinking about word choices isn’t just about thinking, ‘Ah, good word.’ It’s about looking at them in their context and considering the purpose they serve. Now, having seen modernism at work makes me think that I’m in on a little jargon. So, perhaps this short story haunts me because of the days’ worth of meaning it carries, or perhaps it haunts me because I’ll never forget my first.

7. Ursula Le Guin’s “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction”

Just to be clear, everything on this list is a strong contender. It saddens me that this essay is only number seven. Le Guin makes a compelling argument in a deliciously satirical tone. The target of her hyperbolic portrayals is the patriarchal ideology that believes a battle to be the strongest metaphor for a novel. Instead, she suggests that a feminist and more inclusive metaphor for the novel is the carrier bag. Stay with me…

To do this, she starts by referencing the famous jump cut from Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. The scene in reference depicts the first murder by Sapiens being committed using a bone. In this instance, the narrative told by men is that humankind’s first tool was a bone, with which they hunted and murdered. But Le Guin points out that this narrative ignores the mothers who stayed at home to nurse the baby. Instead of hunting, these women were gathering. Of course, they needed something to store their wild oats, so they invented the carrier bag, basket, or some sort of container. So, the battle and container being metaphors for novels, do two different things. The former is a story of conquering, which is typically a man’s story; while the latter is a bag full of human experiences that can belong to anyone, including a woman.

Being a woman myself, this essay is (for want of a less hackneyed word) empowering. Manly metaphors are so entrenched in our language, that I must often assume the identity of a man, to apply the metaphor (or another literary device) to myself. Le Guin’s essay reminds me that we can critique problematic metaphors and propose more inclusive ones, to achieve more harmonious modes of existing.

8. Charles Dickens’s Hard Times

Dickens’s caricatures of people who try to enforce utilitarianism animate this novel. While his exaggerated renderings of them foreground his critique (and are rather amusing), he drives his argument with the ironic logic of their rules. Almost every time they try to apply their utilitarian philosophy (which is constantly), they contradict themselves. It’s pitifully funny.

I say pitiful because these characters are victims of a societal structure – they’re just being good citizens. But their contradictions problematize the utilitarian need to quantify human nature and human problems. You just can’t. There are too many variables to any given human circumstance to accurately measure them.

Moreover, the variables in question can be drastically different: when each is approached from a different angle, the precedence one takes over the other changes. For instance, you might say that a straightforward way to quantify a human life is by its monetary contribution to society. How then, can you say that a fifty-five-year-old successful entrepreneur is more valuable to society than a jobless pregnant woman? Perhaps that unborn child will be a genius who finds the cure for cancer. Or not. But we won’t know if we discard her based on her job status, which might be a logical outcome of a utilitarian ideology.

These are my thoughts when reading Hard Times (and participating in the lecture and seminar accompanying it – which are great for guiding my thinking and expanding my perspective). And thinking about my thoughts, I’m starting to notice a trend in this list. These texts are impactful when they’re compelling to read, and the theory or history attached to them chugs a train of thought. I do like to think, which makes studying literature a pleasure.

9. John Gardner’s Grendel

The reception of this novel is a fascinating feat of irony. Critics praise its masterful existentialism, which is actually what Gardner tries to present as monstrous. Well, I’m on the critics’ side when I read this.

Grendel’s (the monster’s) absurdist visions persuade me of the poetic slant of an existential outlook. I get it when he says that the bard’s embellished tales of the king’s war victories are lies. The bard presents these wars as virtuous achievements, but what are wars really for? Greed and pride, is my answer. So it’s refreshing to find my sympathies with a monster. See, I didn’t know Gardner’s argument when I first read it. But when I found it out in the lecture, Grendel assumed an extra layer of meaning. Not to mention the meaning Gardner already gives it by giving a voice to the monster in Beowulf.

Gardner’s reimagining the aggrandized Anglo-Saxon poem with a warlike tone, in an existential novel from the viewpoint of Beowulf’s monster, is poetic in itself. For someone who, by force of habit, associates poetry with Romanticism, I sure see a lot of poetry in Grendel. Perhaps it’s because, when the Romantics wrote about nature, they often highlighted its sublime power, which diminishes the perceiver’s own sense of purpose. When confronted with the majesty of a gigantic waterfall, you begin to question what your life’s pursuits are really for.

This is the effect that Grendel has on me, which, funnily enough, is the opposite of what Gardner wanted (he says so himself).

10. Emma Rice’s production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night

This lively production is, by The Globe’s standards, irreverent. I wouldn’t call it irreverent because I believe that it’s much closer to the style of productions that Shakespeare put on in his day, than the serious ‘comedies’ The Globe usually produces. Remember, Shakespeare was popular culture. His work is fraught with sexual innuendoes, when you look closely enough.

Emma Rice reimagines today’s equivalent of this Shakespeare comedy, with queer readings of characters, a racially diverse cast, and a narrator in drag. Of course, her actors also enacted the subtext – which is an ocean of sexual innuendoes. With this production, Emma Rice brings me to see the comedy in Shakespeare’s comedy. I’ll be honest, reading them, and trying to decipher them, draws the fun out of them.

So, this production – still in the original script – enlivens Twelfth Night and crams it with energy. Unfortunately, the board removed Emma Rice from The Globe theatre, on account of her tone, but luckily, she left us with this gold nugget.

There you have it: the cultural rollercoaster that YSJU put me on last year. I read and watched the widest array of texts I could have imagined.

Some notable texts that didn’t make it onto this list are the Medieval alliterative poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the Early Modern poetry of Lady Mary Wroth. While they’re rich with substance, I suspect the reason they didn’t make the cut because their perspectives are too insular for my taste. Before cheap print became available in the eighteenth century, literature was written by and for nobility and priests, who have a limited view of society. Self-interest in isolation (which includes love affairs and chivalrous knights’ quests to prove themselves honourable) just isn’t my game.

As you might have deduced from my list, I engage more with texts that critique socio-political issues in interesting ways. On that note, I hope these reviews gave you something to think about, even if it’s just to ponder the reason for having such an eclectic mix of literary taste.