Decolonising the literary canon

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I wrote in my UCAS personal statement that “literature was the story of mankind”, and my naïve, 17-year-old self truly believed that. I believed that the poems and the stories I was reading were representational of the thoughts and minds of all people at that time, and that excited me. When I was reading, I felt like I was charting the tale of humanity throughout history. Little did I know that my sentiment (not unlike many of my personal sentiments, actually) was complete bullshit.

One Cambridge term later and my naïve optimism has been thwarted. I am not charting the tale of humanity in the books that I am required to read for my course. I am charting the tale of one man.

And that man is always white, privileged, and European.

For all literature is equal, but some kinds of literature are just more equal than others, and that literature is that of the esteemed literary canon. This consists of the prose and poetry deemed critical to an academic and cultural understanding of literature through time.

One would certainly expect such a canon to consist of the narratives and writings of a diverse array of people, bringing the stories and paradigms of people of all races, genders, sexualities, and social classes together to collate a comprehensive record of the literary pursuits of the human race. Yet, as we’ve learned especially in this political climate, expectations only set you up for disappointment, and that is certainly the case in literature.

Works that are hailed as fundamental oddly all appear to have been written by white, European men, meaning that to be considered well-versed in literature from a canonical perspective a reader is only required to have read the writing of people who have always existed in a state of empowerment and privilege.

This is an inequality that is especially prominent when we consider colonial literature. Tales of empire are told by the men whose ancestors wielded the colonial swords of oppression, silencing the voices of their victims and the accounts of their suffering in the process. The histories and stories of the people of colour whose lives were shaped by the tyranny of colonial rule are ultimately erased, deemed unworthy of canonical precedence in favour of 154 – yes, 154 – of Shakespeare’s sonnets, and countless plays, epic poems, and novels told exclusively through the lens of white male privilege.

Now, I’m not discrediting the work of canonical greats. I can appreciate some Shakespeare, Byron, or Marlowe just as much as the next person. But it is categorically unjust to perpetuate the institutional racism and systemic injustices that pervade a Western world responsible for slavery and colonialism, within literature. If the only literature considered superior and worthy is that written by an exclusive, privileged subset of people, it propagates the discriminatory belief that highbrow literature is only for that exclusive, privileged subset of people, which can make navigating the literary canon as a person of colour or any other minority group an incredibly alienating experience.

At Cambridge, for example, the English course requires that an entire eight-week term is devoted to the study of Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s literary contributions were significant, of course, but to designate eight weeks to the work of a single white man and not a single mandatory week to the literature of writers of colour is inherently wrong. It signifies a need to decolonise the literary canon, to decolonise university curriculums, and to finally give the narratives that need to be read the precedence and the recognition that they deserve. 

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