Adichie, Kureishi, Hurston: what authors should be in the ‘decolonised’ canon?
An open letter declaring the need for more black, Asian and minority ethnic writers to be studied has been misconstrued as an affront to white authors, but a more rounded curriculum benefits us all.
It is telling that Lola Olufemi’s open letter about an all-white university curriculum and the need to include more black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) authors was misconstrued as an attempt to eradicate all white people from every reading list ever. You see this rhetoric in white supremacist circles, when men shout “you will not replace us”, and tweet that diversity is equal to white genocide. It makes me think of that age-old proverb: to the privileged, equality feels like oppression.
What Olufemi wanted was to ‘decolonise’ Cambridge’s English literature curriculum, highlight some authors from BAME backgrounds and ensure that students read widely. This is not in any way controversial. It’s needed. It’s important. Olufemi’s tireless efforts are to be applauded, as is the university for standing by her.
In thinking about the canon of English literature and what we consider the greats, I go back to the novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s talk about the danger of the single story. Reading widely and studying books written by people from diverse backgrounds can take us out of the comfort zone of what we consider the norm: the stale, male and pale canon. So, what books by writers of colour should be put on a new reading list?
Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God is a brilliant nuanced novel about race in the US, gender roles and endurance. Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race is an expertly written critical analysis of what it is to be black in the UK today, talking about history, class, feminism and more, all while trying to decentre whiteness in conversations about race.
Another important book is the coming-of-age novel is The Buddha Of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi. From its opening sentence (“My name is Karim Amir and I am an Englishman born and bred … almost”) and on to its bittersweet conclusion, its openness and comedic lightness of touch make it a work of literary excellence.
The short stories of ZZ Packer, Tania James and Junot Díaz are all lessons in precision and conciseness that expand the form’s horizons from its usual “sad dude has a sad think in a meaningful place for 3,000 words” incarnation.
Of course, to truly decolonise the syllabus, students might need to take in some works of history and cultural theory that tackle the subject head-on. We need to look to the work of Stuart Hall; Shashi Tharoor’s Inglorious Empire; or Ngűgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature.
The importance of studying BAME writers alongside white writers isn’t only for the benefit of BAME students. Representation and inclusion are important for all students wanting to read from an expansive range and learn more about world views different to their own. No one is being replaced. But it is an injustice to students that their reading lists are not representative.
I hope that we see change soon.
• Who would you like to see on the list? Share your thoughts using the form below
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