Brannavan Gnanalingam writes about the overwhelming whiteness of English literature as taught in New Zealand – and throws down a challenge to the gatekeepers, including the Spinoff.
UK newspaper the Daily Telegraph caused a stir in October with a front page story about a black Cambridge student who had “force[d] Cambridge to drop white authors”. The Telegraph‘s coverage wasn’t so much a dog-whistle as a flashing neon sign saying “uppity”. Of course Lola Olufemi, who wrote the open letter in question, had said no such thing. In fact the Telegraph had to write a hasty clarification, which it buried in the arse end of the paper.
The thrust of Olufemi’s open letter was that English literature at Cambridge should be “decolonised” to take in more black and other minority ethnic writers. Students should also study more post-colonial thought. The letter attacked the focus on the ‘canon’ – largely made up of white and/or male writers. The letter stated that the emphasis on the canon wilfully ignores, misrepresents, and sidelines writers from the Global South. It notes that you can complete a degree without noticing the absence of non-white writers.
It’d be fair to say the same thing happens in New Zealand. Surveying various universities’ English courses looks like a general exercise in whiteness. As at Cambridge, it seems it’s still fairly easy to complete an English Lit degree without studying a non-white writer. Even in courses that profess to cover post-colonial writers, their interest seems token. I’m only picking on Otago University because it was rash enough to publish its course texts online, but its recent post-colonial English Lit paper featured more white writers (Conrad, Fugard, Atwood and Frame) than non-white (Kincaid, Dangarembga and Sinha).
Why does it matter? It all comes down to the framework of what is considered “good” writing. Weighting English Lit courses towards white writers reinforces the idea that white Western literature is universal and speaks to the human condition. Non-white literature, on the other hand, is “other”, “different’ and most definitely “culturally specific”. We never get to be universal, even if that was our intention (which, let’s face it, is a pretty hubristic ambition). Still, if anyone wants to tell me that Spenser’s The Faerie Queen is more relevant than Tina Makereti’s Where the Rēkohu Bone Sings, I’m all ears. But you’ll be wrong.
In 2017, it’s pretty hard to mount a defence of whitewashing English literature studies. The novel itself isn’t even a European-born artform – the Indian Sanskrit writers, Arabic writers, Japanese writers and Chinese writers were expanding the scope of the novel centuries before the first major European novel, Don Quixote, came along at the start of the 16th century. If we’re willing to accept that English is the lingua franca of the world while acknowledging the role of colonialism in spreading it, then it’s even harder to dismiss the artistic outputs of non-white peoples.
The dominance of the literary canon extends to what agents and publishers consider commercial. White is universal and can sell; non-white is too risky. It flows through to awards – as made clear in contemporary literature’s ultimate form of canonisation, the Nobel Prize. There have been more winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature from Sweden than there have been from Africa (of which only Wole Soyinka and Naguib Mahfouz were non-white) or Asia. No offence Sweden, but your literary output is not better than two separate continents.
Of course I’m not suggesting that writing by white people should be ignored or banned from curricula. But we need to acknowledge that Western writers are just as historically and culturally specific as anybody else. Any claim that they’re simply better betrays a laziness of critical thought and a refusal to engage with unfamiliar texts. In a higher education setting, that’s fatal. And it fundamentally betrays why most of us read: to explore other worlds. As I’ve said before on the Spinoff, if your framework for what is good writing simply upholds the status quo, the problem’s your framework.
I’m not saying you can’t study the “great” texts. But the thing is, the texts are great because they’re weird. Like, deeply weird. Don Quixote is as postmodern as The Simpsons. What’s going on with time in Notes from the Underground or Hamlet? Finnegans Wake makes marginally more sense if you read it aloud, drunk, in an Irish accent. Anna Karenina spends a tedious amount of time on Levin’s political theories. One of my all-time favourite books by a white man – JR by William Gaddis – is barely readable. These texts are great because they force you to see the world from other angles, from different perspectives. Why then is there such unwillingness to do the same when ‘Other’ writers are concerned?
So what can be done? A lot, actually. There are plenty of great pieces from non-white writers at the moment about the structural problems in literature. But how can we, as readers, decolonise?
I started thinking about this when I first looked hard at the books I was reading. Like most writers, I catalogue the books I’ve read, and have done so since I was a teenager. When I was 22, I analysed my literary diet so far. Ninety percent of the books I’d read were by men. Ninety-five percent of them were by white writers. I was forced to acknowledge that the majority of what I’d read conformed with canonical frameworks, and what other, mostly white, academics and writers considered “good” writing. So I set myself some rules – and my writing and reading has got immeasurably better as a result. It also meant I avoided reading any Bukowski, which was great, because Bukowski fans are the worst. Here’s what I decided to do:
1. Read in theme. I travelled in North and West Africa for three months and in preparation I only read books from that part of the world. I gained a far better understanding of some of the places I’d be visiting than I would have through a Lonely Planet. And I discovered some amazing writers, like Mongo Beti, Ayi Kweh Armah and Christopher Okigbo. Also, having read Ousmane Sembene helped me in a tricky situation when I was inadvertently arrested for murder.
2. Set some rules. These days I don’t read consecutive books by men, and I don’t read consecutive books from the same country (unless they’re Kiwi books). I’ve managed to push this out to every three books being from three different countries with no major issue. I don’t read consecutive books by white people (men or women). My stats are starting to get better. I also set goals to read books from countries I’ve never read literature from. This year I’ve read novels from Guyana, Haiti, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Zimbabwe for the first time. Libraries are genuinely the greatest sources for world literature in New Zealand.
3. Do some background research. If I read a book by white writers on a non-white subject, then I’ll read a non-white critique of it. Heart of Darkness is fine, but Chinua Achebe’s critique of it was far more influential on my own work. By the way, I think white writers can totally write about non-white subjects. But if you do it badly, then prepare to be called out. If you write a book about cricket, then you’ll be criticised if you call a bat a stick and an umpire a referee. Get basic things wrong and you’ve got no-one to blame but yourself. It’s no different if you’re trying to talk about a group of people who have been defined by, and define themselves through, discursive frameworks, stereotypes and specific cultural practices (like, well, everybody).
4. Listen to other voices. And when they criticise a representation of themselves, listen to them. Sure, get all defensive about Kerouac, but On the Road is racist and fetishistic. VS Naipaul’s A Bend in the River is racist, and more egregiously racist than its inspiration, Heart of Darkness. White saviour narratives of uncouth darkies are never a good idea. Listening to other viewpoints also helps challenge your own assumptions about what is good. I’ve read too many great critiques of Lolita by women to feel comfortable talking about that book’s greatness (men, please don’t @ me about Lolita’s greatness).
5. Get some recommendations. If I’ve read a non-white writer, then I’ll find interviews with that writer to see what has inspired them. I know from my own experience as a writer, we’ll tell you – we’re not going to privilege exclusively white writers if we can help it. For example, right now, I’m really digging Can Xue, Assia Djebar, and Alain Mabanckou. And I thought Courtney Sina Meredith’s Tail of the Taniwha was brilliant.
6. Remove the expectation that novels must be universal or immediately understandable to you. You don’t need to see yourself in a narrative for it to have resonance. I didn’t see myself in the 95% of books I read before I was 22. I was fine. It takes surprisingly little effort for me, or other non-white readers, to engage with “great” literature – and it’ll be just as easy for white readers to engage with non-white voices. If you’re willing to accept a 19th Century Russian nobleman’s utterances, then you sure as hell can comprehend a contemporary non-white voice.
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7. Challenge gatekeepers who are stuck in old models. Gatekeepers will only change if they somehow feel guilty, or if commercial reality hits. Or maybe they’ll eventually get sick of being asked “what are you doing to fix things?” when we all know they’re doing piss-all. Ask a publisher in New Zealand, “what’s your approach to fixing the fact there are such few non-white voices in New Zealand literature? Are you ashamed about it?” If you control an arts section, think carefully about how you construct your pages. You could pretend that books pages get read because you cover commercial books by white writers (hahahahahaha) or you could craft them to match how you think book pages should look.
It’d be great if books didn’t get defined by the writer’s ethnicity. Personally, I’d love it if I wasn’t always seen as an ‘Other’ writer. But those existing divisions are only magnified when we accept structures that keep us on the margins. If diversity is a priority for you – including in your reading – you’re going a long way towards making difference normal, rather than token.
The latest novel by Wellington writer Brannavan Gnanalingam, Sodden Downstream (Lawrence and Gibson, $29), is available at Unity Books.
The Spinoff Review of Books is proudly brought to you by Unity Books.