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Reading heredity in racist environments: epigenetic imaginaries in Bessie Head’s The Cardinals
  1. Frances Hemsley
  1. School of English, University of Leeds, Leeds LS2 9JT, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr Frances Hemsley, School of English, University of Leeds, Leeds LS2 9JT, UK; f.c.hemsley{at}


The field of epigenetics research shows us how we are constructed by what is without—materially, socially and environmentally—while also taking us beyond narrow genetic determinants of heredity. If misappropriated, epigenetics research risks pathologising particular social or ethnic groups as biologically damaged. However, epigenetics may also allow us to better conceptualise the biopsychosocially constitutive nature of racist environments. In this article, I argue that epigenetic understandings of embodiment allow us to follow Achille Mbembe’s recommendation: that to account for postcolonial relations of power—their effectiveness and psychology—we need to go beyond the binary categories (like passivity vs resistance) so frequently deployed in the analysis of domination. To demonstrate this, I offer a literary example from apartheid South Africa. In Bessie Head’s The Cardinals, embodiment is imagined as the hereditary effect of segregated environmental space. The Cardinals thus offers something like a literary imagining of the epigenetic (as a material change that is heritable), before contemporary advances in epigenetics research made the connection between environment and embodiment more sensible in molecular terms. Head radically calls into question the certainty of biological identity: characters are ‘marked’ deterministically by their environments but ultimately the mutability of such ‘epigenetic’ markers is revealed when the individual transcends apartheid’s spatial and racial demarcations. Writing in the context of apartheid, Head’s engagement with non-genetic understandings of identity is a motivated attempt to evade the stigmatising categories and ‘genetic’ assumptions of scientific racism, which constructed races as biologically distinct (modern genetic science shows us that there is no genetic basis for ‘race’). Instead, Head positions environmental spaces, including the Indian Ocean (a conduit for South Asian arrivals and for new philosophies and the potential political affiliations that arrive with them) as points of genealogical origin and as constitutive of identity in non-deterministic ways.

  • medical humanities
  • literature and medicine
  • literary studies
  • english literature
  • genetics

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  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient and public involvement Patients and/or the public were not involved in the design, or conduct, or reporting, or dissemination plans of this research.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.