Remembering Jallianwala Bagh: Bali Rai’s City of Ghosts

On the centenary anniversary of the Amritsar Massacre, Dr Aishwarya Subramanian reads Bali Rai’s City of Ghosts (2009), a YA novel set in Amritsar against the backdrop of the massacre. Warning: this reading contains spoilers. 

On April 13, 1919, on the Sikh festival of Baisakhi, thousands of Indian civilians gathered at Jallianwala Bagh, a walled garden in the city of Amritsar, as part of a peaceful protest against recent actions taken by the British colonial administration. Meetings had been banned a few days previously (there’s been some disagreement over to what extent this particular gathering was a deliberate act of defiance). British Indian army troops, led by General Reginald Dyer, blocked the main entrance to the garden and fired repeatedly into the crowd. Hundreds of Indians were killed, and many more injured, though the exact numbers remain the subject of debate. Dyer’s actions, intended to ‘produce the necessary moral, and widespread effect it was my duty to produce,’ were eventually condemned by the British Indian government and in the British House of Commons (not, however, the House of Lords, or parts of the popular press).

It’s a historical event that, as Bali Rai says in the author’s note to City of Ghosts, has passed almost into folklore in India. I’ve lived most of my life a few hours from Amritsar and only visited Jallianwala Bagh once, and I still remember the blank horror of it—the myth so potent as to become overwhelming in that moment.

City of Ghosts is set in Amritsar against the backdrop of the massacre and the weeks leading up to it, though it moves around in space and time, jumping back to England in 1915, and forward to 1940, when the events set in motion here are truly resolved. The narrative is divided between the perspectives of three young men. Gurdial, a resident of the Central Khalsa Orphanage, has fallen in love with the daughter of a wealthy man, and while she returns his love they see little chance of winning her family’s consent to marriage. Jeevan, Gurdial’s best friend at the orphanage, is lonely and craves a family, and so is easily manipulated into joining a group of anti-colonial revolutionaries. Bissen Singh, an older friend of theirs, is a former World War I soldier, consumed by memories of the English nurse with whom he fell in love during his time in Europe, and dependent on opium. Appearing at various points in each man’s narrative is a mysterious woman, or ghost, who seems to be the only person who knows what’s going on. As a format, this is really effective for a reader who knows the history in question—each short chapter is dated, and as we move closer to the day of the massacre the tension increases to the point that, when the narrative deviated just as things were about to get bad (there are long sections exploring Bissen’s World War I experiences, and shorter ones in which the ghost leads Gurdial on a supernatural journey of discovery), I may have sworn a little.

The three men have drastically differing views on the political events taking place around them. Jeevan fully commits to the idea of an independence struggle, and one which will inevitably involve violence, but it’s always clear that he’s too naïve to have a sense of the larger picture, and that the people who have drawn him in are far more interested in the violence than the independence. Gurdial doesn’t really want to think about politics, and finds Jeevan’s radicalisation dangerous. ‘The revolutionaries were every bit as dangerous as the British. In the end, it was ordinary people who would suffer’ (103). Bissen, on the other hand, can’t understand demands for independence. ‘The Engrezi had brought much that was good and India had prospered as a result’ (80) he thinks; even though in the next moment he contrasts India’s poverty with England’s prosperity and cleanliness, it never seems to occur to him that politics might have something to do with this contrast.

These are believable characters (who doesn’t want an uneventful life?), but as protagonists for a novel about an important historical event they can feel rather disappointing. By presenting its protagonists with a choice between apathy and the monstrous violence of Jeevan’s revolutionary cadre (implied to be itself a product of British manipulation), the book makes Gurdial’s ‘well, both sides are dangerous’ stance seem the only reasonable option. Or it would be, were it not for the minor characters around them who, in similar circumstances, have come to very different conclusions. Fellow WWI soldiers express anger and disillusionment to Bissen Singh; one of them resolving after the war to ‘take up my gun and help to chase these devils from my land’. And Jeevan and Gurdial have been raised in the same orphanage as Udham Singh (to whose memory the book is dedicated), who is only a few years older than them.

Udham Singh’s perspective forms perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book. Singh is known to the admiring younger boys as an activist and member of the Ghadar Party; in 1940 he will assassinate Michael O’Dwyer, the lieutenant governor of Punjab at the time of the massacre. The novel begins with a short account of the shooting, and we later read extracts from his prison diary, in which he hopes only for an end to imperial rule. At the end of the book and immediately after the massacre, the ghost Heera tells Gurdial that one day Udham Singh will set the spirits of the dead free. There are moments in City of Ghosts where it feels as if the fragmented narratives and perspectives are allowing the book to shy away from taking a stand—but this feels like a clear one.

City of Ghosts was published in 2009; I don’t know if it was ever explicitly linked to the 90th anniversary of the massacre. Reading it in 2019, in the days leading up to the centenary, was a very different experience than I suspect it would have been ten years ago. Over the last few years, thinking about the legacy of Britain’s imperial past has become more mainstream within Britain than I ever remember it being. In the wake of the 2016 referendum in particular, ‘imperial nostalgia’ has become ubiquitous as an explanation for people’s belief in a plucky, independent Britain that is also somehow a geopolitical powerhouse. At the same time, as movements like Rhodes Must Fall and activism that works to decolonise museums grow to greater prominence, there’s an increasing acknowledgement of imperial atrocities in the public sphere. On a trip to Amritsar in 2017, Labour MP (and mayor of London) Sadiq Khan called for an official apology for the massacre from the British Government; while British political figures, including the current Queen, and (this week) the current Prime Minister, have expressed regret, there has never been a formal apology.

But the idea of an ‘apology’ is itself a fraught one. Calls for such an apology over the years have frequently cited Winston Churchill’s claim that the massacre was ‘an episode without precedent or parallel in the modern history of the British Empire … an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation’—even the author note at the end of City of Ghosts begins with it. (n.b. I’m never sure what to make of this quote and its widespread usage, given Churchill’s well-documented attitudes towards India—perhaps the point is something like ‘even Churchill thought they’d gone too far’?) Theresa May’s recent apology echoes this language, calling the incident a ‘shameful scar on British Indian history.’ As the historian Kim Wagner has pointed out, treating the massacre as an isolated event rather than a consequence of imperial rule, as the Churchill quote invites us to do, works to absolve the British Empire as a whole, treating it as a largely benevolent structure occasionally subject to violent aberrations (which can be blamed on individual bad actors), rather than a violent system in itself.

So how does City of Ghosts fit into all of this? I’m not entirely sure. The fragmented narrative and the range of perspectives make it easier to read the massacre as the complex result of multiple factors all brought to a head, make it possible to condemn the incident without oversimplifying. But then there’s Singh’s ‘freeing’ of the dead, presumably through the death of O’Dwyer—can the death of one man within the system really absolve anything? Even Singh doesn’t entirely seem to think so, whatever the ghost Heera may say. Ultimately the book feels as if it’s shying away from these larger questions—as if, like Gurdial, it would rather just not get too involved. Gurdial is the only one of the three protagonists who survives; perhaps there’s a lesson there.

Aishwarya is a former CLUGG member. Her doctoral thesis examined the effects of decolonisation upon narrative spatiality in mid-twentieth-century British children’s fantasy. Aishwarya also led a postdoctoral project with the Children’s Literature Unit and Seven Stories, ‘Networked Voices: Connecting BAME Activism in Children’s Literature,’ which investigated and visualised networks of antiracist activism in contemporary British children’s literature. The Children’s Literature Association (ChLA) International Committee has just announced that Aishwarya will be one of the three panelists for the 2019 sponsored panel, focusing on BAME Children’s Literature in the United Kingdom, at the ChLA Conference in June. Aishwarya’s other posts on the CLUGG blog include ‘Book Burning with the Borribles’

On the other wind: remembering Ursula Le Guin (1929-2018)

Dr Lucy Pearson

I was about nine when my Nana dropped off a pile of books, bought at some jumble sale or other because I was known for my peculiar love of reading. It was a strange assortment of children’s books including the sentimental nineteenth century novel The Wide Wide World (I never managed to read it, but prized it for its gilt edges) and several Biggles titles (also impenetrable despite my taste for adventure stories). But amidst these, a treasure: the UK first edition of Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea (1968). It was a book which would furnish my childhood imagination and immeasurably enrich my life. As the many tributes prompted by the news of Le Guin’s death demonstrate, I was one of many.


The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards.

–  A Wizard of Earthsea

Among Le Guin’s many wonderful qualities is her worldbuilding, which for me is unsurpassed in the realm of fantasy literature. Not only the landscape, but the politics, economics, and customs of her imaginary worlds are depicted in detail and depth. A Wizard of Earthsea begins with a conventional trope – an insignificant boy discovering he is a powerful wizard – but in Le Guin’s books magic is never an easy solution but, like all power, must be used mindfully. This magic is built on words: in Earthsea, learning the true name of an object or person gives you power over that or them. This was an idea that resonated deeply with me as a bookish child, and which has continued to grow and take on new dimensions as I have come to understand the power of language and naming in the real world. Looking back, I realise that the importance of songs, stories and legends in her books also helped to set me on the path to studying Anglo Saxon and Medieval literature.

Words matter, and what made Ursula Le Guin so great was her willingness to embrace this as truth, even when it meant scrutinising her own work. Setting out to write against the tradition of white dominance in fantasy, she showed that people of colour could be fantasy heroes (though her hero Ged was invariably whitewashed on covers), but later ruefully acknowledged that she was still unwittingly ‘writing partly by the rules as an artificial man’.[1] This realisation prompted her to return to Earthsea and to revise it in ways which undid some of the fundamentals of her world. Tehanu (1990) does not simply overturn the idea established in the first book that women cannot be wizards: it fundamentally questions the basis of this gendered power and suggests that it must be remade altogether.

As a scholar of children’s literature, I continue to find meaning in children’s books of all sorts. But Le Guin, more than any other writer, has grown alongside me. At nine, A Wizard of Earthsea offered me a compelling vision of growing into adult power – and of its drawbacks. I was nearing my teens before I encountered The Tombs of Atuan (1971), which gave me a female protagonist undergoing her own growth. The dedicated high priestess of a female sect, Tenar holds power, of a sort, but it is the power allotted to women by a society which has turned its allegiance to men (we are told that most worship the twin God Kings) and it requires them to sacrifice love, and companionship, and growth. The book presages the revolution that Le Guin would return to in Tehanu: Tenar’s route to freedom lies in overturning the structures of power she has known, even at the cost of relinquishing her own position of power. The more radical revolution which takes place in Tehanu, which sees the wizard Ged without his powers and magic as we have known it leaking out of the world, confused and disappointed me on my first reading in my early teens. But as an adult I’ve grown to admire the radical changes Le Guin makes here, and to love the different kinds of magic she reveals through this book. Women’s work is magic here, and no less powerful because it is often positioned outside the realm of language.

Ursula Le Guin was an activist to the last, speaking out against ‘alternative facts’ as recently as this February. Recognising that ‘the politics of Fairyland are ours’, she also showed how alternative worlds could help us revision the politics of our own.[2]

Thank you, Ursula Le Guin, for the mind treasures you gave us. I hope you’re flying on the other wind.


[1] Ursula K. Le Guin, Earthsea Revisioned (Cambridge: Green Bay Publications, 1993), p. 7.

[2] Ursula K. Le Guin, Earthsea Revisioned, p. 25.


Featured image shows Ursula Le Guin by Marian Wood Kolisch, Oregon State University

From Horses to Fantastic Beasts: The Fantastic Journey of Olivia Lomenech Gill

Jacqueline Ho, MLitt Student

Who do you immediately think of when you hear Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them? J.K. Rowling? Eddie Redmayne? There is, however, someone else who is worth just as much praise – Olivia Lomenech Gill, illustrator of the latest edition of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Last week, I had the privilege to celebrate the book’s exclusive launch with Olivia at Seven Stories, a place I’ve longed to visit.

Stepping into the attic, I was completely mesmerised by the atmosphere: warm, welcoming, magical.

Olivia began her discussion on the creative process behind Fantastic Beasts by sharing one of her very  first paintings, a horse, made when she was 6-years-old. Ever since, horses have become her long-term working partner. Before illustrating Fantastic Beasts, Olivia worked with Michael Morpurgo. Where My Wellies Take Me (2012) was her debut illustration project. She was then invited to draw pictures for War Horse. Here is one of them, Standing To: 

After many years of working with horses, Olivia began on Fantastic Beasts, a rather challenging project. Taking roughly eighteen months to complete, Olivia began the project by studying and sketching animals from real-life and Greek Mythology. Some beasts pure products of Rowling’s imagination, Olivia found them difficult to create. Once she had tackled the beasts’ general appearance, Olivia sought to make the creatures believable to the readers, visiting zoos and studying special animal collections and archives.

Living in the generation of technology and social media, computer software like Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator are popular among many contemporary designers and artists. When illustrating creatures, many may also choose to take film footage of animals “in the field” for later use. Not Olivia. She prefers the traditional way: working in situ wherever she can with pencil, charcoal and sketchbook.

Olivia believes doing rough sketches by hand somehow helped her to develop an intimate relationship with animals, and thus aids her illustration work. She also makes animal models. For example, to develop her design of the Acromantula, she created a model of a spider-like insect in her studio.

Olivia’s studio also plays a great role in the illustration process. She designed and built her studio, a strong believer that architecture affects one’s working process. It attracts many creatures, such as birds and insects. At times disturbing and troublesome, Olivia was ultimately thankful for their presence throughout this project; it was fitting that in illustrating creatures some live ones should have been present.

What struck – and inspired – me most was Olivia’s modesty and honesty. This project had panicked her, she admitted. I’m not a good illustrator; my drawings aren’t good enough. On the contrary, Olivia truly is a fantastic illustrator. I empathise with her and see my own struggles as a researcher reflected in Olivia’s as an illustrator. Just as Olivia must spend lots of time “in the field”  and make copious preparatory sketches, so in literary studies a researcher must spend lots of time in the library, reading, making notes, forming and employing the right methodology. But when it is something you love – as illustrating is for Olivia and researching for me – take courage, push on through the difficulties and moments of self doubt, do the best you can and you’ll be surprised at just how far you can go.

You can find further examples of Olivia’s illustrations on her website

Postgraduate Open Day

Our second Children’s Literature Open Day for this academic year was held on February 8th 2017. It was a great chance to welcome visitors to Newcastle and to showcase the kind of work we do here at Newcastle. We were also lucky enough to welcome Costa Award-winner Frances Hardinge to Newcastle for a public event.

All about the Children’s Literature Unit

We kicked off with an introduction to the Children’s Literature Unit by Dr Lucy Pearson, who is just one of a great team of children’s literature scholars here at Newcastle. Professor Kimberley Reynolds (19th and 20th century children’s literature), Professor Matthew Grenby (18th century children’s literature), and Dr Pearson (modern and contemporary children’s literature) are at the heart of the Children’s Literature Unit, but they are joined by Creative Writing colleagues Ann Coburn and Zoe Cooper – both award-winning authors for children – and by a host of colleague whose work deals with children and childhood, including Professor Kate Chedgzoy (Renaissance childhoods), Dr Helen Freshwater (child performers and family theatre) and Dr Martin Dubois (Victorian nonsense rhyme and fantasy literature). This diverse team takes a whole range of approaches to children’s literature studies, but perhaps the most distinctive aspect of children’s literature at Newcastle is a common interest in historical approaches and book history. In different ways, CLU scholars are interested in how children’s books came to be and how they live in the world.

Alongside the staff who work in this area, there are of course our brilliant postgraduate students, who meet twice a month to share their work (and to create this blog!). Having a thriving group of scholars and students working on different aspects of children’s books means there is always someone to share your ideas with, a chance to learn something new, and a place to get a bit of moral support.

Studying at Newcastle

The Percy Building, home to the School of English at Newcastle University.
The Percy Building, home to the School of English at Newcastle University.

Two of our postgrads came along to share their experiences of Children’s Literature at Newcastle. Masters student Liam Owens spoke about the research he’s been doing on the MLitt in Children’s Literature. Liam says:

“Studying the MLitt is fantastic. It gives me the freedom to research the areas of children’s literature which interest me, and the structuring of the course means I’m able to write on as few or as many topics as I like. This term I’ve just completed a research assignment on the representation of the posthuman in the works of twice Carnegie winner, Patrick Ness. Now I’m in the middle of conducting research on digital story apps and arranging empirical research with a local primary school. Without the MLitt, I would never have been given the opportunity to research children’s literature in such diverse ways.”

One of the illustrations from 'A Monster Calls'.
One of the illustrations from Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls (2011).

Lucy Stone spoke about her PhD research, which draws on the amazing archives at Seven Stories:

I was 13 and beginning to learn German when I first read Judith Kerr’s When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (1971). The story stuck with me over the years. It was at the University of Cambridge while I was undertaking an MPhil in Education that I learnt of Seven Stories here in Newcastle where Kerr donated, along with the manuscripts of her published picturebooks and novels, her childhood drawings, paintings and writings. I was struck by their colour, light and life, which appeared to be in contrast to the childhood of exile I understood Kerr to have led, despite the light and warmth infused in When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. Newcastle University works in close collaboration with Seven Stories and I was very fortunate to be awarded first a David Almond Fellowship and now a Research Excellence Academy Studentship to study the Collection and find out how and why Kerr’s juvenilia resounds with such joy and shows a humanity and remarkable talent.

Seven Stories, National Centre for Children's Books,
One of Judith Kerr’s watercolours made as a child, included in her memoir Creatures (2013). You can view the original at Seven Stories.

Seven Stories and the Robinson Library

Students visit Seven Stories.

One of the most exciting aspects of working on children’s literature at Newcastle is our partnership with Seven Stories: the National Centre for Children’s Books. Archivist Kris McKie came along to share some details of the collection, which now represents over 250 authors and illustrators! You can explore the collection on the Seven Stories website, and if you’re interested in coming to work on archive material keep a look out for our annual David Almond Fellowships, which provide small bursaries to support work on the Seven Stories Collection.

The University’s Robinson Library also has fantastic children’s literature collections, including the Book Trust collection, and an extensive collection of modern and contemporary British children’s books.

Fantasy Worlds with Frances Hardinge

Frances Hardinge

We were beyond thrilled to finish our Open Day with a fantastic event with Frances Hardinge! Frances’ books are favourites here in the Children’s Literature Unit and when our partners at Seven Stories suggested we might be able to invite her for a joint event we were very excited. The event was an in-conversation with PhD student Aishwarya Subramanian, whose research on British children’s fantasy after Empire has given her lots of thoughts on fantasy worlds and the way that authors play with them.

Frances and Aishwarya in conversation.
Frances and Aishwarya in conversation.

The discussion ranged from the role of the YA writer to the place of the fantasy author in our current political context. Frances spoke about her interest in times of transition: many of her books focus on historical moments of change (the impact of Darwinism in The Lie Tree; the aftermath of World War One in Cuckoo Song) or feature actual revolutions (Gullstruck Island and Twilight Robbery to name just two!). These ideas of transition seem especially relevant now, and Frances spoke about her desire to encourage readers to ask questions and the pleasure of writing for young people, who are naturally given to this.


Frances also spoke about the flexibility of young readers, which affords her the opportunity to write books which don’t conform to any one genre. In merging genres, she also takes the opportunity to pull in lots of interesting ideas she’s picked up along the way – her approach to history was a great reminder of just how much fun research can be!

Perhaps the highlight of the evening was Frances’ spontaneous recitation of the whole of ‘Jabberwocky’, which was word perfect. The poem helped to instil a love of language in Frances at a young age – one which has gone on to enrich and enliven her books. We can’t wait to see which worlds she wanders into next, and whether she finds a good use for place names such as Clenchwarton (a small village in Norfolk).

Find out more

If you’re interested in studying children’s literature at Newcastle, find out more on our children’s literature pages or contact one of the Children’s Literature Unit. If you’d like to know about future public events, join our mailing list.