Decolonizing the library is not getting rid of Jane Austen
A university was recently erroneously reported to be “decolonizing” its curriculum by removing Jane Austen — Open Democracy
THE Daily Telegraph’s headline was stark: “Jane Austen dropped out of college English course to ‘decolonise curriculum’”. The story was quickly picked up elsewhere.
Austen had been ‘canceled’ in favor of black American Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, reported GB News, the right-wing opinion-driven TV channel that launched last year to correct ‘woke warriors’ . The Daily Mail published a particularly provocative headline: “No Pride, lots of Prejudice”.
Little attention was paid to the statement issued by the Scottish University in the center of the row. Denying “erroneous media reports”, a spokesperson for the University of Stirling said it had “not removed or replaced – and we do not intend to remove or replace – the Jane Austen’s teaching of our program”.
But it was too late for the facts: decolonization was back in the national debate. This time it was a swear word, even though less than two months have passed since the UK government issued controversial guidelines stating that the British Empire should be taught in schools in a ‘balanced way’.
To update Austen’s famous opening line in Pride and Prejudice, it is a universally acknowledged truth that decolonization is fiendishly difficult and savagely contested. The history of the term, however, is not as much debated as the process. It is believed to have been used for the first time in 1836 by the French journalist Henri Fonfrède, in an article on the French occupation of Algeria. German economist Moritz Julius Bonn is credited with establishing the term as an academic concept some 100 years later.
Until the 1960s, decolonization was defined as a political phenomenon, but it has grown to include everything affected by the colonial experience, whether political, economic, cultural or psychological. In ‘Decolonization A brief history of the word’, published in 2012, the American historian Raymond F Betts notes: “Google listed as of December 1, 2010 some 750,000 sites to be decolonized”. As of April 20, 2022, there were about 11,700,000 results, or about 11 million more.
“Decolonization has become a common phrase rather than a practice,” says Deirdre Osborne, one of three co-authors of This is the canon: decolonize your shelves in 50 books. The recently published book, written by Osborne, Joan Anim-Addo and Kadija Sesay, is not meant to be a confrontation with the existing canon, but a way to expand and democratize it. Rather than recommending a mass cleansing of, say, the three Williams of the traditional Western literary canon – Shakespeare, Golding and Blake – the authors suggest an alternative selection.
“There’s no point in abandoning the canon,” says Anim-Addo, “it’s too ingrained in who we are.” We can’t pretend we can make it go away, but we can get a more realistic idea of the world.
‘I love [Charles Dickens’s] Tough times,” adds Sesay. “I would never throw it away.” Rather than dismiss Dickens, Sesay would like to use the 1854 classic, set in a fictional Victorian industrial town, as a template for a contemporary African novel. “Maybe in the deep pit mines of South Africa or the surface mines of Sierra Leone,” she says.
This sweet assemblage of literary styles and stories across geographies and cultures is typical of the approach taken by the literary trio – two academics and a writer – to what Osborne calls the “thorny problem” of open to reading.
To that end, This is the Canon is an eclectic playlist disguised as a book. It includes writers and stories from around the world, with a particular focus on three ocean regions, the Atlantic, India and the Pacific. Featured writers include African-American Octavia E Butler, British-Jamaican Andrea Levy, Antigua-American Jamaica Kincaid, Franco-Guadean Simone Schwarz-Bart, British-Indian GV Desani, Algerian Assia Djebar , Trinidadian Earl Lovelace and Indigenous Australians Alexis Wright and Tony. Birch.
“It’s about putting together the missing pieces of literature, the pieces of the jigsaw and understanding the tangled lives we live,” says Anim-Addo, who together with Osborne launched Britain’s first Masters in Black British Literature in 2015.
Anim-Addo makes a good point. Our lives are deeply, inextricably intertwined, as shown in the “Adventures of Ngunga”, an early example of decolonized children’s tales, written by Angolan activist Artur Pestana. In the 1980 book, a 13-year-old orphan is involved in the Angolan war of liberation from Portuguese rule. The settlers are all portrayed unflatteringly, but so are some black Angolans. It makes the story more real and complex, says Richard Phillips, professor of human geography at the University of Sheffield. Translated into English, the book offered British readers an “anti-Eurocentric understanding of Africa”, says Phillips, “in which Africans speak for themselves and describe their own land, people and interests”.
In recent decades, the same has happened with fiction in India and other parts of Asia, as well as in whole swathes of Africa. In an article titled “Whodunnit in Southern Africa” for the think tank Africa Research Institute, British academic Ranka Primorac notes the decolonization of African shelves over the years. Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Raymond Chandler, James Hadley Chase and others increasingly gave way to local writers adapting the popular form of “detective novel” to local cultures.
Mind over matter
BUT is decolonization really as simple as getting British children to read books like ‘The Adventures of Ngunga’ or making sure African readers have their own mystery novels? Is it to get adult readers anywhere to immerse themselves in any or all of the 50 novels suggested in It’s the cannon? What if we decolonized mentalities? Isn’t this hampered by larger forces such as geopolitics, the international financial architecture and the functioning of modern markets?
The authors of It’s the cannon say “reading habits are fundamentally linked to mentalities”. Encouraging readers to “go on adventures” allows them to explore new worlds, encounter a wide range of beliefs, and see things from different perspectives. According to the authors, this helps change mindsets over time.
Small changes can, in small ways, set the agenda, says Anim-Addo. “If people are waiting for the biggest changes to happen, we’re already defeated.” These small changes presumably include replacing the “imperial gaze,” that angle of vision adopted by Europeans in the colonies, when entire continents and their inhabitants were rendered featureless for readers.
The debate on decolonization also means resolutely breaking away from the “post-colonial” label formerly applied to literature. “I don’t use that term,” Sesay says, “it was an imposed label, imposed as if it were a badge of honor, as it reinforces the suggestion that those who are called ‘post-colonial ” still live in conditions, which impose an inferior mentality on people. Osborne agrees, adding, “I follow Indigenous author Tony Birch’s view that ‘post-colonialism’ is not a luxury than for the academy.
Increasingly, writers from formerly colonized countries are taking control of the narrative. Two notable recent debuts are Elnathan John’s 2016 novel Born on a Tuesday and Jokha Alharthi’s 2019 book Celestial bodies. Both are reclaiming their home territories – northern Nigeria and Oman, respectively – following relentless disaster reporting or a persistent lack of reporting. John shows that life in the Muslim north of Nigeria is more than the terrorist atrocities of Boko Haram. Alharthi, whose novel won the International Man Booker Prize for Literature, paints a vivid picture of Oman and its people, the struggles against the British and the battle for modernity amidst tradition.
Neither the novelties in It’s the cannon but, then, the writing trio never said that was the final word – or even canon. The title, says Anim-Addo, was simply meant to “provoke a debate about what a cannon is”.
When the first critical study of decolonization — “The Wretched of the Earth” by Martinican author Frantz Fanon — was published in 1961, a review in the American magazine Time said: “This is not so much a book as a stone thrown against the windows of the West.’ As the debate over decolonization – of bookshelves and everything else – continues, this latest suggestion for a new literary canon is not a stone, but perhaps a gentle garden hose focused on filthy Western windows. .
OpenDemocracy.net, May 1. Rashmee Roshan Lall writes on international affairs. She has lived and worked in eight countries over the past decade, including Afghanistan, Haiti and Tunisia.