Between Essay-Novel and Anti-Novel: Natasha Brown's Assembly (2021) - Lunch Lecture

Activity: Talk or presentationTalk or presentation at a workshop/seminar


In Assembly (2021) by Natasha Brown, what could have been an essay about the challenges Black women face in the (post)colonial infrastructures of British society is transformed by the fictional narrative. The novel thematizes the half-conscious reduction of identity to categories such as gender and race as an effect of the oppressive corporate system and its token ‘diversity’ policies. Understanding genres as “repositories of cultural memory” (Rupp) and as a “means of constructing what we perceive as reality” under the current system of capitalism (Wolf), this paper will explore the aesthetic and political functions of self-reflexivity in Assembly. Additionally, I will discuss the novel’s relation to “the (fragmentary) essay-novel”, an emerging protest-genre for the “digital age” (Nünning and Scherr). In doing so, this study complements previous studies of metafiction that have historically excluded BIPOC authors and have dissociated self-reflexivity from political engagement (Fenstermaker).

This case-study features my research-in-progress on the FWO-funded research project “Self-Reflexivity and Generic Change in 21st-Century Black British Women’s Literature”. Serving as scientific collaborators on this project are the following: Lars Bernaerts, Helen Cousins, Elisabeth Bekers, Roy Sommer and Janine Hauthal. Primarily, I argue that self- reflexivity can function as a catalyst for generic change. Secondly, I explore the aesthetic, political and cultural functions prompted by this shift in the boundaries of genres. In this regard, we follow Sarah Upstone in theorizing that self-reflexivity can function as “a strategy in the service of identity politics” (292). Thus, drawing on theories concerning genre, feminism, and postcolonialism, this project hopes to contribute to the “aesthetic turn” (Arana), which counters the field’s dominant treatment of Black British authors as sociological informants. This project came about in the context of the significant rise in popularity of self-reflexive novels by BIPOC authors, especially in the wake of the BLM-movement. The novels under consideration employ metareference and innovate traditional aesthetic conventions to represent contemporary experiences of violence in a white-coded urban environment. Genres like the fairytale, the travelogue, the essay novel, the gothic novel, the textbook etc. are modulated to reflect on representations of forced displacement, gender violence, systemic violence inherent to capitalism, the violence of during the COVID19-pandemic, the traumata of racial segregation and the conscious silencing of voices in the British canon.
Period27 Apr 2023
Event titleWOLEC: lecture
Event typePresentation
LocationBrussel, Belgium