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Tracing Race in Place: Nature, Landscape and Identity

Tracing Race in Place: Nature, Landscape and Identity in the works of Elizabeth-Jane Burnett, Andrea Levy and other contemporary Black writers

Ever since studying a unit in Black British Literature in second year, I became obsessed with the author Andrea Levy. Her novel Small Island is my favourite book ever, and I found the considered, subtle way she writes about issues of race and identity so powerful. I also love nature and literature about nature, so I wanted to write about that too. I was so interested by the way Levy’s novels have always been bound to their London settings, when so often they trace migration and domestic movement away from London, exploring the impact of nature and landscape on her protagonists.

After the murder of George Floyd, there was a surge in the popularity of Black literature. People were turning to books for education as the climate of the news became increasingly hostile and negative. My primary text The Grassling by Elizabeth-Jane Burnett was a book many people read – nature writing by a Black British author – to gain an understanding of the Black experience in rural Britain. It is a fascating book, unlike anything else I’ve ever read. Burnett blends poetry and prose as she crafts her book, part memoir, part self-discovery as she explores Devon, where she grew up. Her father, who is from Devon, has a terminal illness, so she seeks solace in the natural landscape which connects her to his heritage.

While focusing on The Grassling throughout my three chapters, I turned to African American nature writing in my second chapter, to compare the differences and similarities between the experiences of African Americans and Black Britons in the rural. Due to a shared history of colonial othering, Black people in America and Britain both find hostility and alienation in the countryside, but there is also the potential for important healing there.

In my final chapter, I moved solely to Black British literature, in a comparative reading of Burnett and Andrea Levy. Levy has always been read as a writer of the city, so I wanted to challenge this narrative and unpack the nature and natural elements which exist in many of her novels.

I really enjoyed having a long time to spend researching one particular passion of mine. Though it was definitely challenging, I feel proud of the end product. Working closely with your academic supervisor is a great experience and producing a piece of work that you can print and hold is so rewarding.


This article is part of a themed week of articles sharing summaries of undergraduate dissertations related to feminism or women's history and literature. We hope you enjoy!


I'm Ellie, a third year English student and the Editor-in-Chief at HerCampus Bristol. I love sunshine, long walks and English breakfast tea! I write about all things health and wellness, with a few miscellaneous topics sneaking in here and there.
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