In my Year 11 English class, we were once instructed to write letters to anyone. Anyone at all. The possibilities were endless. These would be mailed to our chosen muses and we would wait with bated breath for replies which, for the majority, never came. In a class of 30, 2 of us received replies: it seems only the Queen and Bear Grylls can be counted on for correspondence. But what surprises me when I think back on this memory is who I decided to write to. A favourite author? I remember that that was the year my teacher lent me her copy of Maus by Art Spiegelman and I’d been captivated by what I’d found in a graphic novel. A favourite singer? I took the break-up of My Chemical Romance very personally. Persuading Gerard Way to rethink the decision would be a pretty intense, but meaningful, letter. And yet, my emotive prowess was not utilised in a feeble attempt to resurrect an emo band. Instead, I wrote to Eddie Redmayne. Who? It’s a decision which, looking back on those formative years, still perplexes me.
An actor with a penchant for the classical, for Hardy and Shakespeare and who’d been educated at Eton received my letter and my affections. Filled with the sentiments of a 17 year old who cared very much for the career of someone who couldn’t be more different to me, my letter went away with nothing but good wishes. Now, it comes back to me as telling, as indicative of a self built-up with books and good intentions and, in true childish style, wanting to own things. My identity was a build-up of what I could claim: what others could recognise in a magazine, read in a book, and see me holding onto in the back of their mind. My name was attached to whatever book we studied in school, having read it already and accidentally gained a reputation for knowing it, for bands my teachers fawned over but did not expect their students to know, for what I now recognise as ‘high-brow’ TV shows geared toward the middle-classes; and by extension, knowing of, and adoring, classically trained actors… Oxbridge and Eton graduates whose privilege was glaringly obvious but who I still claimed as part of my identity. And that was why I wrote to Eddie Redmayne.
Looking at things in retrospect is always funny. The significance of these tiny little things gets brighter and brighter, amidst the bigger picture; I studied for my A-Levels. My mum suggested Cambridge. I chose English, or, as I stated in my personal statement, English ‘chose me.’ ‘Me’ being a Pakistani-English hijabi who could critique media representation of my fellow Muslims acutely, argued with my classmates on the aftermath and sensationalism of modern-day conflicts, who fussed with my sisters over the shape of my head-scarf and whether it suited me. ‘Me’ was someone who also empathised whole-heartedly with L.M. Montgomery’s ‘Anne of Green Gables’, who mooned over dead authors and their alive intent, who claimed the written word in her accidental love affair with English, but who could also recognise the racism in Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’, saw the elitism that came with stereotypically middle-class endeavours like the theatre and problems with accessibility, who wondered for all the non-white faces that failed to make an appearance in my favourite books… My identity was loving so many things and then critiquing them simultaneously. Surviving through imagining. Assessing the construction of the worlds I took pleasure in, and then wondering where my place was in the context of this. I took all of this to be the mindset of, fingers crossed, the typical English student.
Finding out I got into Cambridge was a surprise. I broke into the ivory tower and read the works on my reading list with an enthusiasm which screamed of finality: my place, had I found it? In my mind, I imagined conversations with people who’d be able to discuss the finer details, the repercussions of our favourite words alongside why they were our favourite words, and did they think Ben Whishaw had played a convincing Keats in Bright Star, and wasn’t the reading list just a little euro-centric and what did they think was the role of the writer when it came to social responsibility? These expectations were not met because they existed in one place. I had constructed ‘The Prototypical English Student’. The Student existed inside my mind. The Student did not fall into existence within the lecture environment. The Student was not the student I sat next to.
The first English student I talked to had a picture of Eddie Redmayne on her bedroom wall and I noticed straight away. She called me ‘a girl after her own heart’ but I didn’t tell her the story of my letter-writing exploits. I would have defined my heart as odd: it was constant but erratic, and it recognised the institutionalised privilege that resounded behind hobbies and interests, books and actors and English students straight away. My heart rebelled when we discussed academia, rattled off the names of white authors and their middle-class exploits and I waited for a criticism which never came. References were rife, and everybody got them, but they almost seemed empty. Were we not going to question things? Did the faces of those around me bat an eyelid when mine never came up in what we read? Did it matter? Did I matter or was I making a fuss? Was this arbitrary? My accidental love-affair with English was ruptured. For the first time, my dysfunctional safe space did not feel so safe and my assumption was that I made sense within this tradition. I did not.
When you ask someone to imagine the typical English student, common trends include a taste for a good cup of tea, Austen, taking Instagram photos of the two together, perhaps wearing glasses, and a habit of perusing local charity shops for vintage typewriters. The assumption which comes with imagining these things is that within that mental image, this person is white. This person is not brown, not visibly Muslim, and so… was it naïve to think that I could expect a norm of social responsibility, of questioning things? It’s interesting because I do like tea, and Austen, and my Instagram does show this. I wear glasses. I have always wanted to own a typewriter. But have I ever wanted to fit the stereotype of an English student? No. Not at all. And so it seems I occupy a space which is multi-dimensional, but overwhelmingly accidental. I am an English student because I liked reading and the implication of words. My approach to my subject is one of noticing, of taking the title and assessing it and accepting the disparity that brought about expectations which will never be met. It is one which is personal and political and does not always bring about clarity. But it produces a trust in my own interpretation and thoughts: an individuality which does not always require confirmation. Am I your ‘typical’ English student? No. Not at all. But the conclusion that I have come to, within the context of conversations I have had, within the loss of ‘The Prototypical English Student’, within my imagined encounters, and the real ones, has been freeing: everything is on my own terms, and honestly, I have no desire to be.