In “Joined-up Writing,” Agbabi addresses the deterioration of a relationship between a mother and son. Through the mother’s eyes, we watch as the son grows up, becomes a successful writer, and falls in love. The deterioration happens when the son marries a religious Zimbabwean immigrant woman of whom the mother doesn’t approve. She expresses feelings of heartbreak, abandonment and also remorse for the unforgivable way she breaks up their family, leading to her estrangement from her son.
The title refers both to the mother teaching her son to write in cursive and to the form of the poem, the sonnet corona. A sonnet corona is a form of poetry where the last line of the given sonnet joins to the first line of the next, connecting to each other through the repetition of words. This repetition occurs throughout all the stanzas, until the last line of the last stanza becomes the first line of the first. This forms a ring, or crown. Agbabi grants herself some linguistic freedom in the repetition of her lines. She likens her repetition to a game of Telephone, a children’s game where one phrase is repeated and possibly altered slightly, because it is misheard. (“Stories in Stanza’s English” 5). The sonnet corona is cyclical in nature. This connects to the cyclical way that prejudice and violence repeat themselves in the mother’s tale. She can’t escape the cycle because she is trapped in the corona. However, her son, who writes in the form of the detective novel, is able to escape.
“Joined-up Writing” is a modern retelling of The Man of Law’s Tale. In Chaucer’s tale, the protagonist Custance, the daughter of the emperor in Rome, endures suffering at the hands of two different mother-in-laws. Custance’s first union is an arranged marriage to a Syrian Sultan. Out of his love for Custance, he converts to Christianity and convinces many of his people to do the same. The Sultan’s mother is so enraged by her son’s conversion that she murders him and massacres his fellow converts. Custance escapes the wrath of her first mother-in-law and travels to pagan Northumbria where two miracles prove to the people that Custance is a faithful Christian. The King, Alla, also converts to Christianity and marries Custance, much to his mother Donegild’s dismay. Donegild arranges for Custance to be banished by falsifying letters from King Alla, breaking up their family.
Agbabi’s is not the first adaptation of The Man of Law’s Tale. In 2003, the BBC presented a version that told the story from Constance’s point of view as a Nigerian stowaway. Agbabi chose not to replicate that adaptation, so she could address the balancing of character gender and nationality. She already had two Nigerian characters in her tales and she wanted the narrator to be an older woman. The speaker in “Joined-up Writing,” like the mother-in-law Donegild, is sneaky and cunning. They both use the written word as a weapon to cause harm. However, Agbabi also portrays her antagonist as pitiful and lonely. She states, “I didn’t want all the tales to be delivered by sympathetic characters. In fact, writing from a negative view point was ultimately more rewarding because you had to work harder to engage the reader” (“Stories in Stanza’s English” 5). She deliberately uses highly structured poetic form, such as iambic pentameter and the sonnet corona for the voices of her villains to make their characterization more weighty and formal. She particularly played with class status and formal linguistic style saying, “it was especially exciting doing this with a character who didn’t speak Standard English. The elevated meter elevated their status. I was subverting the social hierarchy through form (“Stories in Stanza’s English” 6). Agbabi heightens this subversion by introducing many different fictive levels in the poem. In addition to the characters and speaker of the tale, Agbabi describes the author of this tale, Memory Anesu Sergeant, as a lawyer who originates from Zimbabwe. Her character biography associates her closely with Constance, who likewise travels from England to Zimbabwe. The tension of the tale is increased when we consider that it is told by an immigrant from the viewpoint of a woman voicing anti-immigrant sentiment.
Although this poem was written prior to the referendum on Brexit, a political situation that proposes the exit of Britain from the European Union, the heightened social issues would have been present. A driving factor behind the Brexit referendum was an increasingly nationalistic sentiment at a time of “economic and cultural dislocation.” The people of Britain felt like their national identity was under assault and that the influx of immigration was putting substantial pressure on the job market, healthcare and educational systems (Erlanger, “Britain Votes to Leave EU”). The anxiety of the mother in “Joined-up Writing” regarding the integration of family life with an immigrant emphasizes the social anxiety that the United Kingdom faces over these issues. The mother feels isolated in her own family, in her own home, because of the perceived threat that she feels her daughter-in-law poses to her. It’s worth noting that despite these current feelings, Britain’s history was founded on immigration. As such, Britain’s literary history reflects the multiple languages that were used. In the fourteenth-century, texts were written in Latin, Anglo-Norman and Middle English. In this historical context, Agbabi’s work exploring Britain’s national identity through language highlights the process of historical and linguistic change that is—and always has been—a part of everyday life in Britain. “Joined-up Writing” is a reminder that Britain’s rich historical past is one that incorporates many heritages and communities that came together to form a new, distinctly British nation and it further encourages the continuation of this work in the present day.
Joined-up Writing The allusion to the form of the poem, a sonnet corona. Also a foreshadowing of the tale, where the mother teaches her son to write in cursive script.
Memory Anesu Sergeant A nod to Chaucer’s Man of Law, as the term Sergeant was interchangeable with the Man of Law title. The origin of the name Anesu is from the country Zimbabwe. It means “With us” or “God is with us.”
2 mam Mother. Many of the slang terms or colloquialisms used by this character represent an accent that originates in the Tyneside area, the Geordie accent. This ethnonym is used in North Eastern England, specifically Newcastle and Tyneside, to describe the tight-knit community grew from a sort of fragmentation that was disrupted during the 18th and 19th centuries by a large influx of immigration. The Geordie dialect is distinctly working class or middle class. Many words borrowed from the Scottish vernacular, as Northumbria, where Tyneside rests, is adjacent to the Scottish border. The continuing relationship with the Lowland Scots and the shared origin of dialect helps to reinforce the similarities between the two linguistic styles.
7 laddie Boy
8 Have you heard of him? The first of many rhetorical apostrophes that Agbabi uses throughout the poem, a nod to Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale which also makes use of the rhetorical apostrophe.
9 Tyneside The name for an aggregation of urban areas in north-east England, situated on the River Tyne. It stretches from Newcastle to the coast. Originally an insular area of England, Tyneside and the larger city of Newcastle saw large amounts of immigration in the 19th century, as an effect of the industrial revolution. In the early 1900’s, Tyneside was considered the “Melting pot of the U.K.” The irony here is that the speaker of this tale was likely from an immigrant family herself, one that move to Tyneside for a better life and job opportunities.
11 Coronet An imprint of the Hodder & Stoughton publishing company. Their byline is “inspiring books that enlighten and entertain.“ Also a nod to the form of the poem, a coronet is a type of crown.
18 foisty Musty, moldy
23 bonny Beautiful
29 nigh Denoting proximity, coming near to something
35 sadza A traditional food of Zimbabwe, sadza is a type of cornmeal prepared similarly to porridge.
39 Black Magic Magic invoking harmful or malevolent spirits, often referencing witchcraft or the occult. Here Agbabi plays with the imagery of black and dark, alluding to Constance’s skin color and the narrator’s prejudice against her.
44 Maurice From the Latin, meaning dark skinned, Moorish.
47 Chrysanthemums This flower has many meanings around the globe. In Asia, they represent life and rebirth, which makes it an appropriate gift for a new baby. In Europe, they generally represent loss and sympathy.
48 delphiniums Delphinium symbolism is protection against dangers and an openness to new emotions in a romantic sense. They celebrate positivity and encouragement. However, delphiniums are poisonous to humans when ingested, perhaps another example of double meanings that Agbabi uses.
50 Tyne The River Tyne. See the Tyneside note.
56 Stabbed Indicates the threatening feeling that the mother feels in regards to her son’s love for his wife. She is metaphorically stabbed by his pen, although in subsequent lines she literally feels the pain as a stabbing sensation in her face.
59 Whore of Babylon From the book of Revelation, a figure described as a woman seated on a scarlet beast with the following inscription on her forehead: A mystery, great Babylon, the mother of prostitutes and abominations of the earth. Used to represent sexual immorality.
74 topped myself Committed suicide
85 home helps A person employed to help an elderly or sick person in their home.
93 trawl An exhaustive or extensive search for something
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