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archive of essays by Teju Cole for NEXT newspaper

rule-maker, rule-breaker

A grammar teacher, in the course of a lesson, writes the following example on the blackboard: “Bill had a succulent cheeseburger.” Immediately, hands shoot up in the classroom. “Bill? What kind of name is that?” The teacher, puzzled, says that Bill is an eminently normal name. There was a recent US president named Bill, he reminds them. The students respond, “We don’t know why you always use these honky white names.” They suggest he use something more normal: names like Aissatou or Rachida.

They then go on to argue that, anyway, intricate grammatical rules like the imperfect subjunctive are irrelevant to the way people speak today. The teacher is white, his pupils, as you will have guessed, are mostly not. This scene, from Laurent Cantet’s film The Class, neatly encapsulates the ongoing crisis in French education. The Class, nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar this year, is set in a tough Parisian neighbourhood. It centres on the young teacher, François Marin, and his volatile charges. The character of Marin is played by François Bégaudeau, who in real life wrote a book about his experience as a teacher to French immigrant students, students much like the ones in the film.

Marin, when we first meet him, is intelligent, open-minded, and frank, and is easy to like. We are early on introduced to his skepticism. He knows how difficult life is for his students, but on the other hand, he’s not fooled by their many excuses to avoid doing their schoolwork. With a mixture of pleading, cajoling, charming and laying down the law, he attempts to get the best out of each of them. They, for their parts, do what teenagers everywhere do: try to get away with as much as they possibly can.

The teacher-student conflict is emphasised by the fact of their diverse homelands: Senegal, Mali, the French Caribbean, Morocco, Algeria, China. Some of these kids don’t come from French-speaking backgrounds, others are being practically raised by their older siblings, and one has a parent who is facing deportation. These facts help heighten not only the artificiality of the classroom encounter, but also some of its latent tensions. When Marin gives an assignment to the students to write biographical essays on themselves, we understand their reluctance. They all but accuse him of voyeurism, of trying to gain confidences he hasn’t quite earned. He insists, not entirely convincingly, that he truly cares about them and wants to know about their lives.

The kids are likeable. Even those of them who are doing badly in their schoolwork have a kind of street-smart sharpness that one can’t help but admire. They don’t want to be bossed around. Marin, no despot, nevertheless feels that he ought to exercise control over the classroom. Some of these tensions begin to boil over when one bright black student, Khoumba (played by the hugely gifted Rachel Regulier), refuses to participate when called on in class. In the post-class discussion he has with her, Marin insists that she apologise for her earlier surly attitude. The scene is painful to watch. She’s much younger than he is, of an ethnic minority, chafing under a teacher’s arbitrary authority. What we see through her eyes is not a mere teacher-student interaction, but one person needlessly using official power against another.

Marin, meanwhile, is intent on following the logic of that authority to its conclusion, however distasteful. He insists, and eventually extracts his apology, but we see that by then the student has lost respect, and any vestiges of affection she might have had, for him. And in him, too, there is a note of regret: after all, he is liberal, open-minded, not the sort to ever judge anyone based on place of origin or skin colour. But, as a teacher, as a French civil servant following a set syllabus, he is already implicated in a subtle form of oppression.

But this is only the beginning of Marin’s troubles. A Malian boy in the class, the seeming easy-going Souleymane, has a moment of anger and inadvertently injures a classmate. More troublingly, at least to Marin, Souleymane storms out of class, making it clear he doesn’t care what anyone thinks of him. By the school’s rules, a hearing must be held; it is likely that the result will be expulsion. This is a result Marin is keen to avoid, as he genuinely likes the boy. But Marin himself complicates the disciplinary process. In a moment of annoyance, he had addressed two clever but scheming girls in the class with the word pétasse-word quickly spreads around the school that Marin is calling his students “sluts.” Souleymane is facing a hearing, but the teacher can call students by rude names? Who’s the real rule-breaker here?

The Class dramatises these various conflicts absorbingly. Director Laurent Cantet made the film using three hand-held cameras, which catch not just the scripted action but also some of the longueurs and tedium of classroom life. Much of the lighting is natural, and the students, some of whom were actually in Bégaudeau’s real-life class, add immeasurably to the documentary feel of the result. It is not a “feel-good” film, but it is one that feels true to life: events take on a life of their own, and conflicts great and small seem to sprout from the most innocuous interactions. There is no neat ending. But, without explicitly doing so, The Class gives us an insight into the simmering immigrant distress that has hampered France in the last few years, most notably in the fiery riots that engulfed the Parisian suburbs called the banlieues.

The French want to insist that immigrants subjugate themselves, their cultures, and their habits into an overarching “Frenchness.” The immigrants, as far as they are able, try to get across the message that respect is a two-way street, and that to live and work in France does not mean becoming imitation Frenchmen.

The original title of the film, Entre Les Murs (“Between the Walls”), serves Cantet’s project better: the true subject here is what happens between the literal walls of a school room, as well as between the metaphorical walls created by rules. One leaves The Class wondering whether, as Marin insists, you have to know the rules before you break them, or whether it is Khoumba and her mates who are in the right: France has changed, the world has changed, and the usual rules no longer apply.

Filed under: literature

between savage mountains

The final image in Tayeb Salih’s imagistic 1966 novel Season of Migration to the North is of a man swimming in a cold river. The swimmer is the unnamed narrator of the book, a literary scholar recently returned to Sudan from the UK. Drifting along on the river, getting numb, falling into a dream state, he says, “I was halfway between north and south.” The story told in the novel, primarily the story not of the narrator but of a fellow Sudanese intellectual he encounters, is precisely keyed to this matter of being half-way.

The other man, Mustafa Sa’eed, is introduced at first as a quiet dweller in the same small village in Sudan as the narrator. This thoughtful man fits the languorous pace of the novel’s opening pages, and the pastoral air of immemorial rhythms in a small farming village is one in which each person’s contribution is “continuous and integral”. He is not, in fact, introduced as an intellectual, but as a stranger who, in the narrator’s absence abroad, had bought a farm in the village, married a local girl, settled among the indigenes. He is liked well enough, even if he’s found a little aloof; many in the village value his clear mind and practical approach to solving problems. That all changes one night when, in the presence of the narrator, Mustafa gets drunk and begins to recite English poetry. The following day, the narrator confronts him, and persuades him to divulge his story. Mustafa shares his past in a fragmented but matter-of-fact manner; it is a shocking tale, all the more so for hewing so close to normality.

Born in Sudan, robbed of his father at an early age, and raised by a stoic mother, he seized the opportunity for schooling offered him by a stranger. After distinguishing himself in Khartoum, particularly in the English language, he wins a scholarship to further studies in Cairo. From there, he makes his way to Oxford, and becomes a brilliant economist. But his brilliance and inflexibility have come at a price: his soul is deadened. A split develops in his personality. On the one hand, he lectures in economics at the University of London (where he is given a professorship at the scarcely believable age of 24), and on the other hand, he becomes a callous sexual predator. In particular, he seeks out young English women with Orientalist fantasies as his prey. These women are not entirely innocent. As one of them says to him, “I want to have the smell of you in full—the smell of rotting leaves in the jungles of Africa, the smell of the mango and the pawpaw and tropical spices, the smell of rains in the deserts of Arabia.” Given such easy pickings, Mustafa lies deliriously, and at one point, he lives with five different women all over London, under five different names. It ends badly for Mustafa’s women. Two of them commit suicide, another dies of indeterminate causes, and yet another is murdered—by him, and with her consent—in the throes of a sick sexual passion. He comes to trial for this last crime, but a clever lawyer gets him a light sentence at the Old Bailey. After seven years, he’s a free man. He returns to Sudan, and marries Hosna Bint Mahmoud, and she bears him two sons. All she knows is that he’s “from Khartoum,” that he’s a generous husband, and a generous father.

Season of Migration to the North has a feverish surface. Salih’s language (ably translated from the Arabic by Denys Johnson-Davies) is pitched between the laconic style of the high modernists and the allusiveness of Arabic literature. Especially notable is the expert use of metaphors derived from the natural world. Mustafa, recalling how he deceived his many lovers, and how they loved to hear clichés of Africa and the Arab world, is fond of repeating the phrase, “My store of hackneyed phrases is inexhaustible.” But Salih’s own language is anything but hackneyed. His images rise from the page with remarkable freshness.

Standing next to a girl in Hyde Park, laughing alongside her as they listen to a public speaker, eventually getting her to pay attention to him, Mustafa declares, “I felt that she and I had become like a mare and foal running in harmony side by side.” Elsewhere, the narrator is on a train travelling westwards across Sudan, “on a single track stretching across the desert like a rope bridge between two savage mountains.” The reader recalls how, much earlier, Salih had likened Cairo to a mountain, and London to another mountain. Now, the rope introduces the element of instability. Salih wrestles with the idea that, even for those who have scaled the mountains of Africa (however defined) and the West (in whatever conception), there remains an abyss between the two that can be literally maddening.

After Mustafa’s death (an apparent suicide), his wife, Hosna, is forcibly given in marriage to an old man in the village. She goes mad, and more deaths ensue. It almost unhinges the narrator who, by this time, has fallen in love with her. The contagion of Mustafa Sa’eed, who knew too much but who somehow got unmoored from humanity, spreads even from beyond the grave.

Season of Migration to the North is ultimately too wild to be a cautionary tale. This is no loss. It delves effectively into the fever of the post-colonial condition, particularly the perils of double-consciousness. It also has an unexpected vein of comedy.

A panel in 2001 named it the most important Arab novel of the 20th century. That seems a rather large claim, but what is not contestable is that the author, Tayeb Salih (who died last month at the age of eighty) was one of the most original literary minds in Africa. A new edition of the book, out in April of this year with a foreword by Laila Lalami, should introduce this fine novel to a new generation of readers.

Filed under: literature

cuttlefish ink

Less than a kilometre away from where I write these words is San Giovanni in Laterano. Built in 314AD, it is the earliest surviving Christian basilica.

Two kilometres in the other direction, sits the biggest, baddest amphitheatre of them all, the Colosseum. Overlooking it is the Capitoline Hill, with its Michelangelo-designed piazza.

Not far away is where Julius Caesar was stabbed by Brutus 2053 years ago this week. Earlier this morning, I stood within waving distance of Benedict XVI as he greeted a large crowd in front of St Peter’s. I am in Rome.

Rome is inescapable, even for those who are not here. The city inhabits our clichés—all roads lead to Rome; when in Rome, do as the Romans.

And what I have found, in these few days of my visit, is that the city also functions as a prototype for what it means to be a city.

It does so for four interlinked reasons: its antiquity, its prominence as the centre of the known world’s largest empire, its medieval rebirth as the centre of the biggest religion in the world, and its remarkable present state of preservation.

For these four reasons, Rome dominated the imaginations of all those who came afterwards. The early organisation of the lands of central Europe under Charlemagne was styled the “Holy Roman Empire” (though it wasn’t any of those three things—not holy, not Roman, not even really an empire).

For the British in the nineteenth-century, territorial expansion and colonialism were modelled on ancient Rome; many of the world’s best scholars of Latin were based at Cambridge and Oxford.

If you walk the streets and buildings of old Lagos, or consider the monuments of New Delhi, what you see reflects Victorian British ideals. London was the pattern for many cities built in the British colonial period, and Rome—the Rome I still see when I stand on the roof of the modest house I’m staying in —is the pattern for London.

The streets retain their cobblestones; there is a profusion of arches and domes, both Roman inventions.

The experience of déjà vu here is perhaps more intense for those of us who practice the arts. Not only visual artists contended to win fame here—Bernini, Raphael, Caravaggio, Michelangelo—but countless writers did too.

Edward Gibbon came here in the late eighteenth-century and wrote, “I can neither forget nor express the strong emotions which agitated my mind as I first approached and entered the eternal city. Several days of intoxication were lost or enjoyed before I could descend to a cool and minute investigation.”

The result of his investigation was the massive book, “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” Byron, Keats and Shelley sought the city out and breathed its air, and gave birth to the Romantic movement in poetry.

Henry James, Goethe, Dickens: all arrived, and were humbled by what had gone before them. And it is the same now, for anyone who contemplates the idea that Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher emperor, set down his words here, that Virgil wrote the Aenied within these precincts, and Tacitus, Livy and Suetonius helped invent the writing of history within walking distance of each other.

But if there is a sense of lives lived here, and of vast vanished generations, if every circuit and road brings one face to face with a chastening ruin, it still doesn’t make the city into a sterile museum.

It is, on the contrary, an active cosmopolitan 21st century Italian metropolis, one whose passions are so well-known as to have become stereotypes: the wine, the beautiful women, the high fashion, the ubiquitous scooters, the fabulous food (I wholeheartedly recommend the tagliatelle with cuttlefish ink).

But, layered on that, are further modern complexities: graffiti, immigration, a sickening divide between rich and poor. There is a heavy military police presence in the centre of town, and the gypsies (or the Roma, as they are properly called) are evicted from the tourist districts on the slightest pretext.

On the trains and trams, one sees Indian nuns and Mexican priests; many of the newsstands are run by Bangladeshi men; a lot of the menial work is done by recent arrivals from Albania and the Balkans. Nigerians are here, too, in large numbers, as clergy, pilgrims, professionals, hustlers.

In the famous Feltrinelli bookshop on Via Orlando Vittorio Emanuele, I saw copies of “L’ibisco viola” and “Metà di un sole giallo” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, books better known to us by their English titles.

The current prime-minister, Silvio Berlusconi, is a power hungry thug, and he is almost universally despised; on a single wall it is possible to see a spray-painted “Heil Hitler!” right next to an angry “Berlusconi = Fascisti.”

Berlusconi controls most of the country’s media, and has had numerous laws altered to favour his ambitions. But, as a Salesian priest I met explained it to me, Italians are too busy living “la dolce vita” to worry their heads about politics.

On the metro, there is a television screen that runs adverts telling you what number to call if you have been the victim of racism. But I also had several Romans tell me, “All gypsies are thieves.”

Unifying all of this is the Roman light, which falls across the city, low and tangerine yellow, bathing everything from the dome of St Peter’s in the Vatican, a light unlike any other, impossible to guess at until you actually experience it, a light falling across the Janiculum hill, with its magnificent views of the Palatine and the River Tiber, falling all the way to the stark, tuft-headed pines lining the Appian Way to the east.

An 84-year-old friend of mine, a vital, brilliant woman who organised an international theatre group for many decades in the city, told me a story of how she often drove the film director Federico Fellini around Rome. “He was impossible.

Stop here, he would say, and we would stop. Stop there, and we would stop.” For Fellini, Rome was endlessly fascinating, infinitely distracting.

And thus was it for Goethe as well, centuries earlier: “Wherever one goes, wherever one stops, landscapes of all varieties are disclosed: palaces and ruins, gardens and wastelands, distant or cluttered horizons, small houses, stables, triumphal arches and columns, meet in such close proximity that they could be set down in a single sheet.”

This sprawling seat of emperors and popes remains exactly as Goethe describes it, and I confess amazement at this series of decisive moments shimmering across an eternal city.

Filed under: literature

sure banker

On the international scene, there is perhaps no literary genre more closely associated with Nigerians than the scam letter. This indigenous art of ours, this national embarrassment, was recently elevated to new heights by a group of Nigerian entrepreneurs.

I say “heights” because, given the details of the case, it is not possible to avoid being a little impressed. Don’t get me wrong: these men, led by one Paul Gabriel Amos, are crooks. But the elegance of their scam and the sheer quantity of money involved, lend the whole sorry story an undeniably magical air.

Amos and his boys sent a package to Citibank in New York last September. In the package were instructions to Citibank to accept faxed transactions concerning certain funds belonging to the Ethiopian National Bank. The signatures checked out as genuine; phone calls were made and they, too, sounded legitimate. Over the next few months, faxes came in from the “Ethiopian officials,” and funds were withdrawn to the tune of twenty-seven million dollars. The money went to bank accounts in South Korea, Australia, Japan, Cyprus and the United States.

In all likelihood, Amos’ eventual arrest in Los Angeles in January would have seemed to an American audience a simple matter of cops and robbers. The simplicity of the tale was underscored by the starkness of the protagonists: the Nigerian scam artists versus Citibank. Agents of chaos, in other words, were set against the representatives of order. The winner was the multi-national financial institutions; the loser, Nigeria’s image.

What interests me more, though, is Citibank’s less public face. The official histories of the institution present a placid and scrupulously legal rise, from the foundations of the City Bank of New York in 1812, to what is now a worldwide financial behemoth, with dozens of international subsidiaries. It is a history of mergers and renamings, of foreign branches and capital infusions. The name is now solid gold, and there are many who would rather bank with Citi than any other firm. But there has been some recent trouble: the staggering losses entailed as a result of exposure to subprime mortgages threaten the very existence of the bank.

Billions of government dollars have already been infused into the corporation, and as I write these words, there is serious talk of the bank, the largest in the country, being nationalised. Citibank could well become a branch of the U.S. government within a few weeks or months. Now, especially, there is another aspect of Citibank’s history that deserves to be highlighted: that the bank grew rich by aiding and abetting an illegal slave trade. Trading in slaves had become a capital offence in the U.S. in 1820, but had continued informally for long after that.

Seventy-four cases were tried between 1837 and 1860; few resulted in convictions, and punishment was minimal. For years, New York remained the most important port for the building, outfitting, insuring and launching of slavers’ ships. Much of the grim human cargo of those vessels in the middle of the century was going to Cuba, and supporting the sugar plantations there. In profiting from slavery, the City Bank of New York was not unlike the other companies founded by merchants and bankers in the same time period. The companies that later became AT&T and ConEdison emerged from the same questionable milieu.

The eminent banker, Moses Taylor, who at his death was one of the world’s wealthiest men, joined the board of the City Bank in 1837, after a long and successful career as a sugar merchant. He became the president of the bank in 1855, and served in that capacity until his death in 1882. Taylor helped fund the war effort on the Union side. But he also made massive profits from brokering the sale of Cuban sugar in the port of New York, investing the profits of the sugar planters, facilitating the processing of the cargo at the New York City Customs House, and, not least, helping finance the acquisition of a “labour force”-in other words, paying for the purchase of slaves.

This last he did in part by operating his own ships, six of them, on the high seas. Taylor and other bankers like him knew exactly what they were doing. The profit margins were irresistible: a fully outfitted ship cost around $13, 000, and could be expected to deliver a human cargo worth more than $200, 000. A New York Times editorial in 1852, as the City Bank was raking in the profits, noted the following: “If the authorities plead that they cannot stop this, they simply confess their own imbecility. If they will not do it, the moral guilt they incur is scarcely less than that of the slave-traders themselves.”

I recently walked around Manhattan, from the old Customs House to South Street Seaport, and on to Wall Street, all within a mile of each other. The air there, on the southern tip of the island, is laced thick with the past. I saw the traces of slavery, theft and murder, and how they have been repackaged for modern times. Glittering headquarters of glass and steel are seductive, as is the ubiquity of a strong brand name. Citibank’s tag line is live richly. It is good advice, but one might well ask whether this wasn’t exactly what Paul Gabriel Amos and company, in their tricky way, were attempting to do.

Nevertheless, the matter of reparations is no simple one Even in clear-cut cases like those of the companies who assisted Hitler in his mass-murders, it is difficult to gain a fitting financial recompense; the dissolution of IG Farben, makers of Zyklon B gas, is a notable exception. Still the matter should at least be on the table.

This might be why I feel little sympathy for Citibank these days, as its capitalist model crumbles, as its profits shrink, as even “yahoo boys” feel emboldened to take a slice of the action. Perhaps when it is reborn, the bank can move beyond live richly to live and let live. Until then, I give awon boys a free pass.

Filed under: literature

an earlier bid for freedom

Late last year, I visited the small city of Savannah, Georgia, for the first time. Founded near the sea, on the marshy border between Georgia and South Carolina, Savannah is one of America’s oldest towns, and for a long time was one of the most prosperous.

The day I arrived there, I decided to take one of the tour buses around, and fill myself in on some of the history of this historic-looking place. The bus driver was an African-American woman—let us call her Louisa—a jovial character who brought the tour to life for the mostly white passengers.

As we drove along the narrow cobblestone pass that followed the Savannah River and its once busy port, she pointed out the various buildings that had served as warehouses for cotton, or offices for insurers or shipping agents. She spoke of this profitable commerce with some pride, as though she had managed to disconnect it, in her mind, from the labour of black slaves.

The cotton plantations were not particularly far from Savannah. From the beginning of the eighteenth century until well into the middle of the nineteenth, black people had served as little more than farm animals; the city’s magnificent squares and the mansions on its outskirts had been built from these profits. Black ghosts whispered in the elegant streets; the ancient oak trees were sorrowful witnesses to what they had endured. But none of this was present in Louisa’s tour, either by her choice, or from the guidelines her employers had set down. Tourism, after all, pertains to local pride.

Nevertheless, I was surprised when, as she continued to tell the story of Savannah, she mentioned an episode from the American civil war. General William Tecumseh Sherman, one of Abraham Lincoln’s fiercest and most battle-tested commanders, had destroyed Atlanta, and marched on with his troops, towards the sea, towards Savannah.

“But we kept him at bay for a long time,” Louisa said. “Our great General fought valiantly until overwhelmed by Sherman’s men.” But this was Louisa, a black woman, speaking of the confederates, of “our great General,” as though they were on her side.

The absurd historical revisionism reminded me of something Obama was fond of repeating during his campaign for the presidency. “In no other country on earth,” Obama often said, “is my story even possible.” This was the myth of American exceptionalism, delivered in stentorian tones, calculated to stir the heart.

It was written into the DNA of both whites and blacks, and it found convenient versions of history to buttress it. Of course, the story of slavery, of the Civil War, of reconstruction and Jim Crow laws, and later on, the Civil Rights Movement, were well known. But they were integrated into this narrative. The journey was from darkness to light.

But how deep the darkness! What Louisa and Obama rarely acknowledged was how close to the heart of the American experiment, and its rhetoric of freedom, was the institution of slavery. The Civil War of 1861-65 seemed to have a clear relationship to the black experience, and Louisa’s support for the “other side” was peculiar. But Obama, as president, took oaths relating to the Constitution of the United States, and the foundational document of the country, the Declaration of Independence, and this put him in a situation no less peculiar.

The Declaration of Independence, when it was written in July 4, 1776, was a bold articulation of the concept of freedom, but many of those who signed it did not believe that such freedom applied to black people. Not because they did not believe blacks were human, but because it was too uncomfortable a contradiction to confront: slave-ownership was profitable.

American blacks therefore chafed under the oppression of the Founders (writing many petitions to them, explaining their plight), even as the Founders themselves chafed under British rule and described it as “enslavement.” Washington, Jefferson, Franklin: these men were, in a word, hypocrites.

Patrick Henry, famous for coining the phrase, “Give me liberty or give me death!”—a rallying call for American patriots—might have been surprised that one of his slaves took it literally, running off to join the British, risking death in pursuit of liberty

And, as Louisa drove her tour bus around once-wealthy Savannah, as I looked on the old trees and cobblestones, these forgotten stories were what came to mind. The last colonial governor of Virginia, the British nobleman, Lord Dunmore, had seen an opportunity in the hypocrisy. In 1775, he promised outright liberty to all slaves who managed to escape from the plantations and serve in the British Army.

The promise was earnestly intended, and earnestly taken by the blacks: from Virginia alone, 30, 000 escaped in the attempt to join British lines. Thomas Jefferson lost several dozens of his own slaves in this way. And this was what I thought of Obama’s “In no other country on earth is my story even possible”: that in no other country did rhetoric do such violent battle with reality.

Of those who did join the British, many donned the uniforms of the British Loyalists. Those who did not manage to escape found themselves forced to fight for the Americans. At the Battle of Monmouth in New Jersey, blacks fought against each other, and killed each other in large numbers: it is the kind of terrifying detail that history books leave out.

As sad as these fragments of buried history seemed to me, on that bus in Savannah, what became clear, also, was that black American freedom, the self-generated movement that would gain expression in Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr, had its roots in this unlikely black-British alliance. And though the successes of that initial effort were modest—the colony founded for free blacks in Sierra Leone after the Revolutionary War soon succumbed to chaos—the idea took seed, and manifested in countless slave revolts in the decades between America’s freedom from the British and black freedom from slavery.

That early bid for freedom, and the example of now-forgotten black heroes like Sergeant Thomas Peters (born an Egbe prince), was exemplary for those who came later. Without a doubt, given the choice in the 1770s, Louisa, Obama and I would all have preferred the British offer to the soaring rhetoric of the American Founders. The beautiful, crumbling facades of the cotton warehouses still standing all along the Savannah River were proof that, for many, that life-saving choice had remained just out of reach.

Filed under: literature