Bristol isn’t famous for cider or rioting right now. It’s not even famous for Brunel. More iconic than the Clifton Suspension Bridge are images of Colston’s statue being felled and deposited in the harbour.
I recently attended an online conference where most of the other delegates were North American. Is this your Bristol, they asked, forwarding a New York Times story Britain Dispatch: In an English City, an Early Benefactor is Now ‘a Toxic Brand’?
I answered proudly in the affirmative.
The conference was on environmental literature and I was presenting on utopia (by which I mean the practice of imagining alternative and hopefully better ways of being) in a time of environmental crisis.
Despite this, most of our conversations centred around colonialism. It dawned on me, perhaps a little late, how the former is a consequence of the latter, and that colonial ways of thinking permeate our culture beyond the statues and names littering our Bristol streets and institutions.
I convene the Bristol Utopian Book Collective, a book group set up almost ten years ago now to discuss utopias and dystopias. I realised that even within our group we had never discussed how the genre’s foundations are steeped in colonial logic.
Thomas More’s original Utopia of 1516 sees King Utopus “conquer” the land of Abraxa, rename it for himself and create the ideal society by bringing the “rude and uncivilized natives” into “good government”.
Most utopias are premised on finding an “undiscovered” place, be it an island, in the future or on another planet, and considering it a blank canvas on which to sketch out a perfect world.
It’s dangerously close to the mindset of colonists when they set off from Bristol ports. And it’s a way of thinking that persists in our society in the 21st century, for example if we think of space exploration as a search for other potentially habitable worlds – colonise the universe, why not – or as a means of securing valuable resources. Nothing went wrong when we plundered this planet, right?
In our city, post the toppling of Colston, it seems urgent for Bristol Utopian Book Collective to talk about colonialism. This autumn our monthly meetings are focussing on anti-colonial utopias from black and indigenous writers and activists.
The events are taking place online due to the pandemic, but it remains crucial that we are a Bristol group hosting these discussions. Bristol has been at the forefront of pushing climate justice and racial justice up the agenda through both the Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion movements and this has prompted us to contribute in the way a utopian book group can.
Our chosen texts – INVASION, a short documentary film, the dystopian novel Terra Nullius by Claire G. Coleman and N. K. Jemisin’s collection of short stories How Long ’Til Black Future Month – will finally get us talking about utopia and colonialism.
INVASION is about the Wet’suwet’en Nation standing up to the Canadian government after it granted permission for oil companies to utilise their land, despite the land never having been ceded to the settlors of what we now call Canada. It highlights that colonialism continues today but also that alternative futures are possible, for example the future the Wet’suwet’en are fighting for.
Coleman describes Terra Nullius, a story of the colonisation of Australia retold as science fiction (yes really), as a “targeted empathy bomb” aimed at non-indigenous cultures.
The title is a reference to James Cook declaring Australia to be “terra nullius” or “land belonging to no-one” in 1770, despite the fact it was of course inhabited by Aboriginal people. The novel is a stark reminder that indigenous cultures have already experienced apocalypse and a powerful critique of colonial logic.
Jemisin is an award-winning sci-fi and fantasy writer yet in her introduction to How Long ’Til Black Future Month she meditates on “how hard it’s been for me to love science fiction and fantasy as a black woman. (…) How terrifying it’s been to realise no one thinks my people have a future”. The collection by her own definition chronicles her development as a writer and an activist, “spinning the futures” she wants to see.
It is time to recognise and challenge colonial ways of thinking wherever they are found within our culture. It’s exciting to be leading the Bristol Utopian Book Collective in this direction and I hope readers across Bristol will join the conversation.
Sheryl M Medlicott is convener of the Bristol Utopian Book Collective.
Main photo: Colin Moody