You notice more alertness in the eyes. You sense the stimulated mind. There is something to say, should be said, a willingness to say it. When a person is engaged by a topic and ready to contribute, you tend to know. And sometimes you feel that they're not tentative or experimenting. The point comes from what they know: from experience, their life. They feel more in control of this view. They're empowered.

It's times like these that the Freirean ideals of collaboration, sharing diverse viewpoints, and collectively constructing knowledge are apparent. The Brazilian educator and philosopher Paolo Freire advocated for a student-centered, liberatory form of learning that destabilizes the idea of tutor as sage in favor of shared, problem-based inquiry. I've noticed these kinds of participation more than usual when talking to students about contemporary multicultural writing. They readily reflect on and question postcolonial concepts such as acculturation, hybridity, liminality, and critical multiplicity. They have intimate and insightful critical perspectives on generational difference within diaspora communities, which are "dynamic and shifting, open to repeated construction and reconstruction."1 And they read the possibilities and tensions in characters' cultural identities distinctively, especially subsidiary young characters that are closer in age, generation, culture, and/or experience to many of them, regardless of the individual student's own racial identity or ethnic background.

What follows is about the contribution and value of students' personal experiences in discussions of contemporary multicultural literature. I'm pondering the opportunities for diverse student bodies to learn as partners. While my examples come from reading contemporary multicultural writing in an intermediate-level undergraduate class delivered in a superdiverse English city, where ethnic minority groups collectively make up the majority, my hunch is that the focus on students' interests in young characters and recent ethnic generations will travel well. In my experience, young characters born in England with parents, grandparents, or great grandparents that emigrated from the Caribbean, Africa, South Asia, and Eastern Europe, such as Shahana from Monica Ali's Brick Lane (2003) and Laurie from Caryl Phillips' In the Falling Snow (2009), speak to many of the students I teach. As nineteen- or twenty-year-old people from ethnically diverse backgrounds, they comment with experiential knowledge on the proximity of the contemporary and the complex identities of multicultural generations close to their own an "inside" view that is validating and invigorating for them and edifying for others. Interestingly, many of these students critique the label "nth-generation immigrants," which traces the lineage of each new British-born generation back to an original migration to a country. Their disavowal of this term suggests their confidence in identifying away from the legacy of immigration.

Superdiversity in Birmingham, UK

I am a teacher and researcher in English Studies at Birmingham City University (BCU), which is in central England. I've lived, studied, and worked in the Midlands for over 15 years, having grown up further north, in the county of West Yorkshire. Birmingham is home to approximately 1.15 million people and is one of the UK's first "superdiverse" cities, where more than 50% of the citizens are from a minority ethnic background. It joins cities like London, Leicester, New York, Toronto, Auckland, Sydney, Singapore, and São Paulo as one of the most multicultural cities in the world. The current leader of Birmingham City Council (and BCU alumnus), John Cotton, describes how,

. . . from the arrival of the Irish, who came to Birmingham looking for work, through to the Windrush era when people from the Caribbean answered the call to help rebuild the country after the Second World War through to the expansion of the European Union, various conflicts and political situations, which most recently saw refugees arrive from Afghanistan, Syria and Ukraine the city has a long history of welcoming people from around the world.2

These varied forms of immigration over the past 70 years have produced a rich and complicated cultural interchange in the city. While the identity of Birmingham has been shaped by its ethnically diverse communities, notable outbreaks of civil disorder, such as the Handsworth Riots in 1981, 1985, and 2005, reflect interracial and intercultural tensions locally and nationally, as well as other contributing factors, including economic pressures. The complex mixture of shared and distinct cultures has developed further as new generations have been born, raised, and educated in Birmingham.

The universities in the city (of which there are five) serve this diverse local population and they are intent on making Higher Education accessible to people from all ethnic and economic backgrounds. In the 2022-23 academic year, almost half of the undergraduate students in English at BCU were from the West Midlands. Significant proportions were Black, Asian, or other minority ethnic groups (37%), and from Index of Multiple Deprivation quintiles 1 or 2 (51%). The 2023 English Higher Education social mobility index shows local Aston University and BCU in the top ten nationally for "social distance travelled by graduates from each institution as well as the proportion of graduates so transported."3  Many people at these universities in this city have come a long way in one or more respects: historical migration, geographical distance, and socio-economic level. In Our City: Migrants and the Making of Modern Birmingham, Jon Bloomfield adds that

. . . it is tribute to the efforts of the three main universities and the local schools that the proportions of black and Asian students accessing these universities is far above the national average. As well as welcoming second and third-generation migrants into their lecture theatres and classrooms, both Aston and BCU are welcoming postgraduates from all over the world.4

The city's universities are significant hubs of multiculturalism, as diverse local student bodies coalesce with national and international students to participate in the generative and challenging exchange of ideas.

Historical migrations and globalization have created a superdiverse population of complex cultures and multidimensional identities in Birmingham. Steven Vertovec points out in Superdiversity: Migration and Social Complexity that conceptions of diversity based on a limited history of immigration and basic dimensions of experience miss the nuanced heterogeneity of superdiversity today. "Superdiversity," as Ulla Rahbek explains, is used to understand a new diversity, which refers to "myriad contemporary social differences shaped by ongoing shifts in migratory patterns (concerning national origin, ethnicity, language, religion, gender, age, human capital, and legal status) which consequently lead to increasingly unpredictable and complex current social realities."5 "Diversity," it seems, has grown rather reductive and inadequate. To appreciate the deep variety in contemporary societies we need a high-resolution image that details the vast range of factors that differentiate people. Accordingly, the "superdiversity lens is mindful of the huge diversity not only between but also within various migrant-origin groups."6 This proliferation of personal differences is becoming more apparent in contemporary classrooms, yet it is clear that certain aspects of superdiversity matter most to the students I work with.

Generations of Immigration

Age and generation are aspects of difference within migrant-origin groups that students are attentive to when we read multicultural literature. My lectures and seminar prompts for this class introduce a range of possible entry points, including the historical social and political contexts, examples of stereotyping and racism, representations of nation and home, conceptualizations of tradition and change, and formal and thematic changes over time. I emphasize that these are possible entry points guided by my awareness of multicultural literature and that each student in the room has perspectives that can initiate other topics and shape our inquiries. Sure enough, most students stick to the suggested areas in the early weeks but increasingly they set the discussion agenda as the course matures. From the British-Chinese child Man Kee in Timothy Mo's Sour Sweet (1982) and the British-Indian Karim in Hanif Kureishi's The Buddha of Suburbia (1990), to British-Bangladeshi girl Shahana in Ali's Brick Lane and British-Caribbean boy Laurie in Phillips' In the Falling Snow, the students' local contexts and personal experiences become more relevant and their involvement and engagement grow too.

Through such novels, students are able to examine British-born ethnic generations, which are often referred to as "second-" or "third-generation immigrants." In an essay that questions the enduring diasporic discourses of marginalization and deterritorialization in contemporary British literature, Sara Upstone notices that:

In his study of black London, Sukhdev Sandhu refers, for example, to Hanif Kureshi's audiences as "second-generation Asians" (231) (which presumably doesn't mean that their grandparents weren't Asian), and then goes on to explore what he terms "second-generation immigrants" (274), and British-born Londoners who are described as "second-generation migrants" (284), even though they have traveled nowhere.7

Labeling characters according to the distance from their forebears' immigration has multiple purposes and problems that students have raised in classes. The terms "first-," "second-," and "third-generation immigrant" recognize only slices of the diversities that inform a person's family history. One student, Zubia, expressed that they are "links to the past, which are relevant but not really dominant in the present." They evoke the differences between having British-born parents, grandparents and so on, and not, which are details of their own lives that students have been willing to share. But the recurring point made in our discussions is that such terms indicate continuities between a migrant past and subsequent generations that may be misleading and segregating.

I've found that numerous students from Asian British, Black British and White British backgrounds who opt for the multicultural literature course question these terms in our discussions of Ali's Brick Lane. The novel is about Nazneen, a young Bangladeshi woman who moves to Brick Lane in East London through an arranged marriage to Chanu and later has an affair with Karim, who advocates for Muslim rights and culture as part of the Bengal Tigers activist group. The novel caused controversy among the Sylheti Bangladeshi community, who felt they were portrayed as "backward, uneducated and unsophisticated."8 Although I note these criticisms of Ali's novel in my lecture, the students are keen to focus on Shahana and Bibi, who are Nazneen's British-born daughters with Chanu, a Bangladeshi man who has lived in London for many years. The controversy that often hooks students into a lively debate about cultural reception and responsibilities in representation soon pales here because there's a more interesting, familiar, and frankly more manageable tension available to them in Shahana, the older daughter, who begins to establish her own identity and rejects Bengali culture, including music, clothing, and food. Yousef Tawfiq suggests that "Shahana just wants to socialize and be like everyone else in her community even though this is in sharp conflict with her father's desire to foster in her an appreciation of her cultural heritage."9 This means Shahana draws from "British cultural norms," but she also relates to a "global street culture" and the cosmopolitan influences of the millennial and emerging Internet generations that promote individuality and self-expression.10

Regardless of ethnic background, students over the years have been inclined towards the snippets of Shahana in their responses, perhaps because she represents the journey of individualization they are on too. For example, when Chanu has resolved to relocate the family to Bangladesh, they tour London, including icons like Buckingham Palace. Whereas Chanu reads the history of the palace from his guidebook and Nazneen focuses on the comparatively plain architecture and housekeeping necessitated by such buildings, Shahana appears uninterested: "He stood with his hands on his hips and appreciated the view. Shahana and Bibi stood next to Nazneen, Shahana with her back to the palace. She wanted to have her lip pierced. This was the latest thing. Last week she wanted to get a tattoo."11 Students interpret this passage and often put themselves in Shahana's place. She is physically and metaphorically turning her back on an historical national symbol and tradition, they tell me, because she does not associate with this dated vision of Britain. She does not treat London like a tourist because she belongs there and is not a visitor. She is more interested in the protean popular trends of her peers and personal expressions of identity through body modifications. She's focused on the future and change, not the past and tradition. This flurry of interpretation comes freely, almost passionately.

Encouraged by their recognition of the British-born children of migrants in Brick Lane the group returns the following week to discuss Phillips' In the Falling Snow, which extends the exploration of inherited and resisted cultures to a third generation. This novel revolves around Keith, who was born and raised in northern England and whose father, Earl, immigrated to London from an unnamed Caribbean island in 1960. Keith has a teenage son, Laurie, with his white English ex-wife, Annabelle. Phillips explores issues of race, immigration, generational differences and class through Keith's experiences of England as the son of a migrant, but also through Earl's earlier experiences of arrival, alienation, and disillusion, and Laurie's later adolescence and schooling, which students alike are most curious about. Deniz Kırpıklı summarizes the changing cultural conditions of the black diaspora experience in this text: "While the Windrush generation is getting older, the second generation still experiences the consequences of migration and identifies with a sense of unbelonging, and the third generation displays the complexity of diasporic identity and diverse affiliations."12 Keith, then, is very much in the middle, but his dilemma updates the tension of cultural hybridity, or in-betweenness, into the differences between past, present and proceeding generations in a way that is accessible to younger contemporary readers.

A recent student on the multicultural literature module, Aliyah, understood these issues of intergenerational difference through the "third culture kid" concept, which encompasses offspring who, in her words, "must consciously admit themselves into a social group that is neither of their ancestral culture nor host culture." Other members of the group were equally keen to explore this fascinating site of non-identity. However, while Aliyah recognized Keith as navigating a lack of belonging or home, other students were more attuned to his son Laurie's outlook. When Keith tries to plug Laurie into their cultural lineage and the history of London as a great port city, Laurie is uninterested. A memorable moment from the novel to which some students draw attention is when the father takes the son to the London Eye observation wheel for a panoramic view over the capital. Readers learn Laurie is "wondering why his old man is banging on like some demented tour guide about his city, the city of his birth."13 There is no need to assert the racial and migrant past of London for Laurie, the students tell me, because he understands the city in different terms and belongs in it according to his youth culture: "The thing is, Dad," Laurie says, "I don't know if things are the same now as they were when you were my age."14 The distance between their cultural heritages and identities is encapsulated in Laurie's blunt admission that "I'm not sure what you're on about," which one student picked out as being a typically teenage expression that reflects a life stage characterized by peer conformity and strained relationships with family.15 Laurie would rather visit the stadium of his beloved football club, Barcelona, than journey to the Caribbean where his grandfather is from. This preference conjures a knowing smile from some in the group. Like Shahana, Laurie is not fixed on looking back because he is living in the complex dimensions of his present culture, in a society brimming with opportunity and conflict in all its superdiversity. It is a position that resonates evidently amongst students in the classroom. 

Teaching Contemporary Multicultural Literature

How can an educator regularly facilitate these moments in which students are more alert, stimulated, and participatory? Should I be seeking more examples of young characters that are more confident in their British-born ethnic identities? Should I be providing every opportunity to match texts about the continual generation of new, mixed identities with the students' experiences of superdiversity? According to Sandra Osorio, one of the functions of multicultural literature as a classroom tool is to "connect to students' rich linguistic and cultural backgrounds."16 One implication is that the representative inclusivity of a multicultural literature syllabus itself serves up blatant opportunities for more personal connections; it is the selection of literature that does the heavy lifting if there's potential for students to explore what they relate to. The young characters in the literature we read seem to do that even more because many of the students in this city have meaningful relationships with contemporary superdiverse populations. The experiences of their own identity, immediate and extended families, friends, peers, colleagues, tutors, and fellow citizens all attend their reading. As such, these contact points with literature mean students are, at the very least, equipped with a personal, experiential and intuitive lens, which "open[s] up space to have meaningful conversations around the literature and problematizing the teacher's traditional role, so that the students were now positioned and valued as the knowledge holders and the teacher as a learner."17 It is true that there are layers of contemporary life specific to groups of people that can invite or impel participation and be important to share as partners in learning. As a man around twice their age, I've certainly learned how broad identity categories like youth and generation can cut through cultural differences to an extent. And, students from ethnic minority backgrounds have made details of characterization in the novels real to me in ways I couldn't have registered alone, as they were inspired to speak about their own family loyalties and divergencies, friendship groups, and educational and social experiences. 

In all this, though, there are slippery slopes. The students' noticeable willingness to engage with contemporary generations, and particularly the multicultural aspects of the characters' experiences, could repeat the politics of difference, as a kind of magnetism to sameness. It could ghettoize student participation on a basis of who they are or what they've lived. And it could imply a responsibility to teach other students and tutors about a restricted, stereotypical area of knowledge they're expected to own, as "living, breathing extensions" of "this stuff," to borrow expressions from Janine Bradbury's contribution to this cluster. It's crucial that students feel qualified to talk about literature informed by their experiences, but I don't want them to only feel able to speak up on these matters, when they're encouraged by the validation of being like the characters in some way. And, far from limiting students to a specific "expertise" or a burden to enlighten older, ethnic majority people, this learning experience should encourage students to evaluate and value their own and others' perspectives in their learning community right across the curriculum.

The accessibility and stimulation they find in the diversity of contemporary youth cultures might further expose the discomfort of engaging with other subjects they feel less authorized to address. Much like myself when trying to facilitate learning on topics that I'm not an expert in, or are not personal to me, it's important that students can participate in topics where they might feel less familiar or confident. Writing on teaching multicultural literature back in 1992, Reed Way Dasenbrock argues that sticking to what you know will result in knowledge enclaves: "To say 'I don't know enough to teach this literature' is to reaffirm a model of interpretation in which the 'proper' interpreter is the already informed interpreter." Indeed, for Dasenbrock, "proclaiming the local perspective the right one . . . discourages outside reading of any kind."18 I'm not convinced this wisdom about wide reading and interpretation has pervaded literary studies quite yet, even after three decades. It tells us that multicultural literature should increase the variety of critical perspectives. More voices should be able to join the conversation. Different directions and intensities of thinking can illuminate literary and cultural landscapes more thoroughly, and in partnership we can each come to learn more about the depths and limits of our respective knowledges. And yet, as students' responses to youth cultures, ethnic generations, and superdiversity have shown me, it's possible for different learners to navigate familiar comfort zones and unfamiliar discomfort zones more equitably.

Joseph Anderton is Associate Professor of Modern and Contemporary Literature at Birmingham City University, UK. He is author of Beckett's Creatures: Art of Failure after the Holocaust and has published widely on literary modernism, dehumanisation, animals and the environment, and homelessness.


  1. John McLeod, Beginning Postcolonialism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), 207.[]
  2. John Cotton, "Why Birmingham's super-diversity is a strength, and not a surprise," Birmingham City Council, 29 November 2022.[]
  3. Higher Education Policy Institute, "Social Mobility Index 2023," 19 October 2023.[]
  4. Jon Bloomfield, Our City: Migrants and the Making of Modern Birmingham (London: Unbound, 2019), 64.[]
  5. Ulla Rahbek, British Multicultural Literature and Superdiversity (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), 9.[]
  6. Ulla Rahbek, British Multicultural Literature and Superdiversity, 11.[]
  7. Sara Upstone, "'Same Old, Same Old': Zadie Smith's White Teeth and Monica Ali's Brick Lane," Journal of Postcolonial Writing 43, no. 3 (2007), 34.[]
  8. Rehana Ahmed, Writing British Muslims: Religion, Class and Multiculturalism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015), 125.[]
  9. Yousef Tawfiq, "Cultural Identity in Monica Ali's Brick Lane: A Bhabhian Perspective," International Journal of Arabic-English Studies 19, no. 1 (2019), 81. []
  10. Yousef Tawfiq, "Cultural Identity in Brick Lane," 82; Upstone, "Same Old, Same Old," 338.[]
  11. Monica Ali, Brick Lane (London: Doubleday, 2003), 29.[]
  12. Deniz Kırpıklı, "New Ways of Identification: Black Diaspora and Memory in Caryl Phillips's In the Falling Snow," Neophilologus 107 (2023), 330. []
  13. Caryl Phillips, In the Falling Snow (London: Vintage, 2010), 163.[]
  14. Caryl Phillips, In the Falling Snow, 167.[]
  15. Carly Phillips, In the Falling Snow, 165.[]
  16. Sandra L. Osorio, "Multicultural Literature as a Classroom Tool," Multicultural Perspectives 20, no. 1 (2018), 49. []
  17. Sandra L. Osorio, "Multicultural Literature as a Classroom Tool," 49. []
  18. Reed Way Dasenbrock, "Teaching Multicultural Literature," in Understanding Others: Cultural and Cross-Cultural Studies and the Teaching of Literature, edited by Joseph Trimmer and Tilly Warnock (Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1992), 36.[]