Context of composition

If writers are influenced by their context, then we will have to learn more about these contexts in order to understand their texts. Writers can be influenced by the times in which they live, the place in which they write or the families from which they come. These factors contribute to what we call the 'context of composition'.

Knowing more about the context of composition will make you read a text differently. You may be looking for evidence to support any hypotheses you have about the author. For example, if you knew that Franz Kafka had a difficult relationship with his father, this will influence your interpretation of The Metamorphosis

The activity below offers a simple way of exploring the context of composition. While the context of Grace Nichols is explored in this lesson, you can do a similar activity with any text that you are reading for Part 3. 


Do a quick search online for biographical information on the author of a text that you are working on. Here is some biographical information from the Wikipedia page on Grace Nichols. 

Wikipedia entry on Grace Nichols
Accessed December 2011

Grace Nichols is a Guyanese poet. She was born in Georgetown, Guyana, in 1950. After working in Guyana as a teacher and journalist, she emigrated to the UK in 1977. Much of her poetry is characterised by Caribbean rhythms and culture, and influenced by Guyanese and Amerindian folklore.

Her first collection of poetry, I is a Long-Memoried Woman won the 1983 Commonwealth Poetry Prize. She has written several further books of poetry and a novel for adults, Whole of a Morning Sky, 1986. Her books for children include collections of short stories and poetry anthologies. Her latest work, of new and selected poems, is "Startling the Flying Fish", 2006. Her poetry is featured in the AQA, WJEC (Welsh Joint Education Committee), and Edexcel English/English Literature GCSE anthologies - meaning that many GCSE students in the UK have studied her work. Her religion is Christianity after she was influenced by the UK's many religions and multi-cultural society. Her partner is Guyanese poet John Agard.

Read through a lens

Try to take four key points from your author's life and create a table like the one below, which should allow you to explore a text more effectively. Reading a text this way is like looking through a lens. We are looking for evidence to support what we know about the context of composition. This method has its advantages and disadvantages. On the one had you see what you did not see before. On the other hand you may be limiting yourself to interpretations that only support your hypotheses.

 Context of composition 

Key aspect from author's life Evidence from text that relates to each aspect
She is from Guyana and likes Caribbean rhythms and culture.
The poem moves at a rhythmic beat. She refers to 'de winter' (not 'the'. There is a brief break from the cold, winter imagery to the Caribbean imagery ('breezy sunlight'). 
She is an immigrant to the UK. 
She misses her home country, feels out of place. 'All this journeying and journeying' alludes to her past, more than a shopping experience. Since Nichols is not fat, 'fat' may be a symbol representing someone who does not fit in. Literally, she does not fit size 14. Figuratively, she does not fit into cold British society.
She is a Christian.
'Lord is aggravating' is a brief but important mention of religion. Is the 'Lord' aggravating? Or is the author? Jesus may be the only one who understands her suffering. She turns to him for understanding. 
She was once a teacher and a journalist in Guyana.
Both teachers and journalists tell stories to make a point. Grace Nichols has captured this moment to enlighten the reader on a greater issue: immigration. This snapshot is like an anecdote.

The Fat Black Woman Goes Shopping
Grace Nichols

Shopping in London winter

is a real drag for the fat black womangoing from store to store
in search of accommodating clothes
and de weather so cold

Look at the frozen thin mannequins
fixing her with grin and de pretty face salesgals
exchanging slimming glances
thinking she don’t notice

Lord is aggravating

Nothing soft and bright and billowing
to flow like breezy sunlight
when she walking

The fat black woman curses in Swahili/Yoruba
and nation language under her breathing
all this journeying and journeying

The fat black woman could only conclude
that when it come to fashion
The choice is lean

Nothing much beyond size 14

Teacher talk

This lesson raises questions about the role of Wikipedia in the classroom and the effects of teaching context before text. Are we limiting ourselves by reading Grace Nichols' poetry with this contextual knowledge? Or are we opening our eyes to details we would not have otherwise seen?

Wikepedia, text and context

Text and context

There is a choice that every teacher must make when presenting a literary text. Which one do you teach first: text or context? This lesson on Grace Nichols begins by introducing the author's life and continues with a focused reading of her poem. There are advantages and disadvantages to this method which we can represent in the following table:

  Advantage Disadvantage
Teaching context first You read the text with background knowledge. You may see more details than without a contextual understanding.  You may be reading with an agenda, which the author did not intend. You may be so busy looking for evidence to prove your hypothesis, that you forget to enjoy the text.
Teaching text first There are no presuppositions. You enjoy the work as a it is.  You may miss details that relate to the author's life. 

For many teachers, teaching context before text (as the Grace Nichols lesson does) simply does not feel right. Why do we have this gut feeling? If you stop to think about the nature of knowledge and acquiring knowledge, then many of us, even language teachers, hold the scientific method in high esteem. The scientific method says we should make observations before coming to conclusions instead of finding evidence to support our hypotheses. The Grace Nichols lesson encourages students to find evidence from the poem to support the hypothesis that Grace Nichols is an immigrant, journalist, teacher and and Christian. We are only looking for confirmation of what we know.

Does this matter? Should literature lessons follow the same principles as science lessons? Let us assume the following premise: Studying of literature is all about learning to look from new perspectives. This is to say that we have a duty to train our eyes to open wider, to see what we did not see before. We are in the business of becoming better noticers. We want students to be more perceptive. How do you sharpen their vision? By offering students a lens to look through (hence the heading 'Read through a lens'). Teaching context before text allows us to look through a lens.

In the end, every text is different. Some texts are very biographical, even though they are works of fiction. Other texts are works of art for art's sake. An author like Ian McEwan bases many of his works on articles that he reads in the newspaper and further research. They have nothing to do with him as a person. Other artists, however, have been known to distort the line between fiction and biography regularly. You might be surprised to learn that Grace Nichols is not very fat. Why do many readers of her poetry assume she is? In this case, background knowledge helps us understand that the poem is not autobiographical. 'Fat' might be a symbol for 'the other', or 'that which is not accepted.' This is a good example of how readers make contextual assumptions anyways, even without contextual knowledge. This proves that it is worth our while to find out more about an author, be it before or after reading their work.   


Finally, you may be shocked to see reference to Wikipedia in this lesson. Many teachers see Wikipedia as an unreliable source. For the record, several studies have found Wikipedia as reliable as Britannica if not more reliable. That aside, many teachers still question the role that it should play in the classroom. For a teacher to Google, 'Grace Nichols' in front of the class and click on the first hit, Wikipedia, seems like a lack of creativity, planning and expertise. This is a sign of the times, that we are no longer the 'sage of the stage' but the 'guide on the side'.

First of all, students will not disrespect their teachers for conducting such basic research. In fact, they will see how handy it is to reach out frequently for quick answers to quick questions. We have a duty to show them that this is only the beginning of further research. Wikipedia is a starting point. The references of every Wikipedia entry are given at the bottom. Furthermore, it's good to discuss the nature of knowledge with students. If all you want to know is when the battle of Waterloo took place, Wikipedia is your answer. If you want to know why Napoleon lost at Waterloo, you will have to click through and spend more time reading.

Similarly our understanding of the context of composition can operate at diffrent levels, depending on what we want to achieve. If you are only interested in the author's place and year of birth, you will read his or her works with slightly more contextual understanding. If you want to know if Mark Twain was being racist by using the word 'nigger' in Huckleberry Finn, then you will have to learn more about his role in the American Civil War. The Wikipedia entry works well for a one-off lesson on Grace Nichols and the context of composition. If you are going to write about her on a written task 2 critical response, then you will want to go beyond the Wikipedia page.


Towards assessment

Paper 2 - After doing several exercises like this with the texts that you are reading for Part 3, you may test your contextual understanding of a work by answering a Paper 2 question. 

Written task 1 - For a creative written task 1 you may want to write a transcribed interview with the author of a work that you are reading. Comment on how his or her life is reflected in the text that the interview focuses on. 

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