Writing Back and Giving Agency to Suppressed Voices Essay

February 22, 2021 by Essay Writer

Updated: Dec 12th, 2019


In literature, writing back is a style where authors use their experiences and historical time lines to bring into light some of the cross cutting social issues within the context of the society of the time. Usually, the authors have the ability to point out various issues that they believe were not well addressed by the social, political and economic institutions.

This is specifically so when the issues relates directly to their lives. Typical of this style of writing is the portrayal of social groups whose voices were not considered in the mainstream society. Queer voices have been oppressed in the past and as such, most writers who have experienced this oppression have found it necessary to write back.

The oppression of social groups along the lines of gender, race, class and sexuality has been common. This paper seeks to make a comparison of Sarah Waters’ story, Tipping the Velvet and other British Literature texts used in this course.

Comparison of Waters’ works and Other Works

The story, Tipping the Velvet centers its themes on the queer voices of lesbians during the Victorian era. This period was typical discrimination of young women based on their sexual orientation. In fact, it was a criminal offense for the lesbians to come out openly due to the fear of victimization and punishment from the authorities (Waters 45).

However, this did not imply that the lesbians were non-existent. In fact, they lived within the society and could not raise their voices to appraise the social system. It is apparent therefore that the author writes back to recall the unheard voices of the lesbians in the 19th century.

She appraises the social structures that allowed women to be victimized. Her literary work is similar to many works that authors have written to give a voice to the voiceless in the society.

In many ways, Tipping the Velvet can compare with the book, “A Room of One’s Own” that was written by Virginia Woolf. The latter book focuses on gender issues where women are oppressed and gives an impression of queer voices that were pertinent during the past of the British society (Wood 9).

In her book, Woolf emphasizes on the plight of women who were not allowed to participate in creative literature. Like in Tipping the Velvet, women’s access to education was the main theme around which the story revolves.

Wood says that the two authors have also experienced similar woes owing to their respective sources of discrimination (26). While Woolf was never allowed an education opportunity despite her father being well able to provide for her, Waters has an experience of facing discrimination due to her sexual orientation.

In medieval British society, Woolf explicates that entry to the field of fiction writing was a challenge for women living in the Britain. The rationale was that the access to the field of writing where women could be able to own property and have sources of income was mainly a men’s specialty (Kendler 36).

As an author, Woolf was a critic and she felt that her understanding of literature as a woman was not well acknowledged as compared to literature written by male authors.

For this reason, she wrote the book “A Room of One’s Own” where she takes the reader through her research and getting the reader to know the woman behind the many literature works she had written earlier.

Woolf, in her work, appraises the patriarchal system that only allowed men to acquire property while women’s roles were to act as custodians instead of having a voice in the choice of their livelihoods (Kendler 33).

The theme that parallels both works is sexuality and lesbianism. The society condemned homosexuality and the consequent punitive measures were dire. Hence, homosexuals during this era lived in disguise. Against the existing norms, Woolf invokes lesbianism by depicting Mary Charmicheal’s works in her literature (Kendler 39).

She explains that the lesbians during that period lived in secrecy and their voices were suppressed. In particular, she admits that there are instances that a woman loves other women and it happened in the context of medieval British society.

Her help of other women authors to portray lesbianism as a characteristic of any society was apparent. She appraises the power structures and affirms her support for the prevalent literature works like ‘Chloe liked Olivia’ that focused on the plight of the lesbians.

Similarly, Tipping the Velvet portrays Nan as a lesbian whose sexuality was in contravention of prevalent norms and values of the society. Indeed, Nan’s relationship with Kitty was a secret that they could not allow the society to know.

This is amplified further by Florence. Although she is a social activist, it was safe for her to remain within the society’s obligation of getting married and fulfilling her gender roles (Kendler 67). As such, Florence is married and has children notwithstanding her real sexual orientation.

Nonetheless, they begin a relationship secretly with Nan. Waters highlights this theme in a more explicit manner than Woolf does. The rationale is in the different eras that the two authors were writing back.

While the former was addressing the contemporary society, the latter was targeting the early 1930s’ society and hence, she opted to maintain a low profile of the theme in her works.

Another literature work that depict writing back similar to Waters’ work is the novel, “Decolonizing the mind”, by Ngugi wa Thiong’o. The novel give agencies and voice to community languages that have slowly become extinct as a result of the community members opting to speak English instead of their native languages.

Himself is a native African but his mastery in English has received applaud in many Western societies although he seems not proud of the achievement. Consequently, he uses this platform to appraise the power structures amongst the African societies that have imposed foreign languages on their citizens at the expense of the native languages like Gikuyu and Dholuo (Kendler 11).

Children enter into education systems where the languages of instructions have been borrowed from the colonial masters. These communities have no control of the content of what their children learn in school since the state agencies have rigid structures that remain unchanged for years.

In this sense, Ngugi compares with Waters in the manner they represent the power structures of their respective societies as ignorant of/and as a challenge to the voices of specific social groups.

However, the themes are dissimilar considering in the contexts they were addressing. Although they both utilize the style of writing back, Ngugi focus more on the effects of neo-colonialism in the African societies (Wesley 34). Wesley asserts that the novel is more of an appraising tool in which he uses subjectivity to derive the conclusion and highlight the themes (35).

Conversely, it is apparent that Waters is not appraising the power structures in the Victorian period to get back at external forces. Unlike Ngugi, she addresses a persistent problem that is embedded in the social structure of the British society.

Ngugi’s novel is only comparable to Tipping the Velvet in the lieu of the fact that the two writers are advocating for increased attention to the persistent queer voices of social groups. Against Ngugi’s notion, not all Africans wish to see a purely native approach to the longstanding social issues.

Other works by British authors are comparable to Waters work. Particularly, Waters’ work drew immense influence from Chris Hunt’s novel “Street Lavender”. Her intentions were to make her novel look like a female version of Street Lavender.

At the oustet, the two novels are set in the Victorian era when the Criminal Law was being amended in London. Hunt says that the major theme that comes out clearly is in the depiction of sexuality (4). As noted, Waters’ novel is set in the Victorian era in the late 19th century and it focuses on sexuality.

Her novel has persistent lesbian themes, which revolve on self-discovery. In Tipping the Velvet, the characters with queer voices and sexuality differences interact with the surrounding rather than isolating themselves (Waters 87).

Besides, both writers chose to write on the Victorian era because they felt that the power structure in this era oppressed the gay and lesbian members of the community.

According to Waters, most of the things people know about this era are stereotypical and misconceptions. Waters considers herself as part of the gay and lesbian heritage since she portrays her support to homosexuality (Waters 14).

The two novels are against the infamous Section 11 of the law that re-criminalized gay behavior in London. They voice the homosexual minority in the society (Hunt 68). They speak for the queer voice of sexuality, which authorities ignore and assume at most times as though it does not exist within the social frameworks.

The novels display unapologetic celebration and open support for the gay and lesbian diversity. Gay and lesbian literatures are portrayed in the two books in a positive way. The two novels give agency to a sexuality voice that Victorian era oppressed and ignored.

It is notable that the similarity between Waters and Mary Prince’s work is overwhelming. Prince wished that the good people of England would hear and understand what she felt and suffered from as a slave. She felt that she and her mother were treated unfairly and hoped that one day people will understand what she went through (Prince 23).

Throughout England, it was normal for corporal punishment to be inflicted on slaves, slave owners believed that it was necessary to punish slaves because they (slaves) had a refractory nature that necessitate their punishment.

Throughout her life, she was sold to and by slave owners and spent her life serving them. Mary explains in her novel how she suffered as she was passed from one slave owner to another (Prince 44-56). Similar to Waters’ work, they both experienced this kind of antagonistic relationship with the members of the society.

Waters had experienced discrimination and used her voice in the book from her perspective of the broader society. It becomes apparent therefore that the two authors are hugely alike in their encounters with instances of social and political suppression.

The oppression of slaves was because of slave owner continued insistence to be superior to the oppressed. Oppression emanated from powerful men wielding power, which is inherent from their families. Hence, these people remained in power because they feel they must as it was a given right (Kendler 54).

The people holding this power are unyielding and exercise their power in oppressing others. In her work, Mary Prince sheds light on the issue of oppression that affected slaves in the Victorian era. Slaves were not allowed to own property or possess money, which made it difficult for slaves to make a living.

Mary Prince decided to voice the mistreatment that slaves experienced and felt that people of England should hear about the suffering she and other slaves underwent in a similar way like Waters.

Finally, a poem by Louis Bennett titled, “Colonization in reverse” is an example of a perfect writing back style. As the poet ponders, the issue of colonization comes to mind owing to the ways in which Jamaicans are shipped to go and work in England (Wood 73).

Indeed, the author points out that the roles the Jamaicans go to perform in the foreign land are demeaning yet they tend to think that ‘good time jobs’ are only found in England (Kendler 12). She appraises this notion and criticizes the West of using the power structures to simplify the transport systems that are used to ferry the Jamaicans to foreign countries to work as ‘slaves’.

Indeed, she sees no difference between this kind of colonization and the conventional colonization. As a former worker in England, she uses her experience to write back and advocate for change within the power structures. The poem replicates Waters’ work in the manner in which the two systems are used.


Throughout history, power structures have acted to suppress the queer voice of the minority. Writing back has become a stylistic device to appraise the pre-existing social and power structures. In their books and literary works, authors such as Waters, Bennett, Ngugi, Prince, Woolf and Hunt are seen to support the voice of social groups.

Tipping the Velvet by Waters assesses sexuality that was criminalized in the Victorian era. In her themes, Waters explores sexuality and openly gives agency to oppressed sexuality voices. Ngugi, Prince, and Woolf have portrayed their concern of suppressed communities, slaves and women respectively.

Ngugi highlights on the effects of colonization on the communities who have adopted foreign languages as their modes of instructions in the context of an education system. After being born as a slave, Mary Prince spent most of her life serving different slave owners.

She feels that people of London should be given an opportunity to hear what she and other slaves went through and the experiences they had, thus voicing people who have been oppressed as a result of slavery.

Woolf explains the issues that affected women at the time including gender discrimination in rather skewed educational and professional systems. As such, the authors write back on the issues and experiences that have influenced their lives and assert that the stylistic device is an effective tool of addressing social disparities.

Works Cited

Hunt, Chris. Street Lavender, Austin, TX: Bookpeople, 1988. Print.

Kendler, Hyslop. Anthology of British Literature, New York: McGraw Publishers, 2001. Print.

Prince, Mary. The History of Mary Prince, Teddington, UK: The Echo Library, 2006. Print.

Waters, Sarah. Tipping the Velvet. Kendal Street, London: Virago Press Ltd, 1998. Print.

Wesley, Fannon. Collection and analysis of books by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Nairobi: McMillan Publishers, 2007. Print.

Wood, Marcus. Blind memory: visual representations of slavery in England and America in 1780-1865, Sandton City: Routledge, 2000. Print.

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