The Danger of a Single Story

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Ellie Fells

The debate about the diversity of literature taught by academic institutions is a well-fuelled one. It is widely acknowledged that the literary canon is fundamentally flawed; with its Eurocentric focus and its minimal inclusion of any work by anyone who isn’t a Western white male, it gives not only an inaccurate view of the huge wealth of literature that we have at our fingertips, but has issues of racism and sexism at its heart. Schools and universities have frequently been subject to criticism for a lack of inclusivity in their reading lists, and despite offering ‘global’ or ‘postcolonial’ literature modules, there is an undeniably heavy bias towards the likes of Shakespeare, Keats and Hardy.

In 2013 the government outlined its plans for the reshaping of the English curriculum for GCSE students. The new plans would supposedly give pupils a greater understanding of ‘British literary heritage’, studying only novels originally written in English and with a specific focus on dramas and fictions written in the British Isles post 1914. Such proposals quickly came under fire, especially with Michael Gove’s proposal to remove American classics such To Kill a Mockingbird. For many, the ‘re-shaping’ felt like an enormous step backwards; rather than diversifying school curriculums and teaching children about different cultures, the GCSE syllabus was to become even more Eurocentric and one-dimensional. With such a focus on ‘English’ writing, the syllabus was to risk excluding some of the most influential voices in the literary world. Surely, with their messages about race, class and gender, novels like To Kill a Mockingbird are exactly the kinds of novels that children need to be reading?

The debate was reignited by Lola Olufemi’s recent open letter entitled ‘Decolonising the English Faculty’, in which the Women’s Officer of the Cambridge Student’s Union powerfully urges her department to reconsider the authors making up their reading lists. She criticises the approach of the course that “elevates white male authors at the expense of all others”, suggesting that Cambridge, and indeed many other universities, have failed to expand the parameters of what is viewed as ‘canonical’. Contrary to the (now infamous) false claims alleged by The Telegraph, Olufemi states, “This is not a call for the exclusion of white men from reading lists, needless to say: it is a call to re-centre the lives of other marginalised writers who have been silenced by the canon.”

As I was reading Olufemi’s letter, I was reminded of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk, ‘The Danger of a Single Story’. In recounting the literature that she read during her childhood, Adichie raises similar issues regarding a lack of literary variety. She talks of her books featuring only ‘white, blue-eyed children’, who spend their time eating apples and playing in the snow – of course, this was a reality far from the one that Nigerian born Adichie was experiencing, but she only had access to Western literature, and was thus confronted with just one ‘story’ to grow up with. She then talks of going to University in the USA, and her roommate asking to hear her ‘tribal music’. Adichie explains that her roommate had heard a “a single story of catastrophe” of Africa, born out of stereotypical images of poverty and suffering. Adichie also admits to being guilty of a similar thing in her response to Mexican refugees, viewing them as the “abject immigrant” thanks to their portrayal in the media. In listening to just the Western portrayals of Africa or Mexican refugees, we listen to just one of so many stories.

What Adichie’s talk does is to highlight the crucial role that literature plays in telling the stories of others. It is through literature from across the globe that we are able to see beyond the stereotypes of nations and their cultures that Western literature has painted in the first place, through global literature that we are able to foster some kind of feeling and understanding for experiences of those different to ourselves. Olufemi’s letter offers a similar message – literature provides people with a voice, a way to have their story heard, but by focusing predominantly on the voice of the white Western man, we are deaf to so many important others. The call for the decolonisation of the English department, and indeed of school curriculums, needs to be heard loud and clear: diversity in literature is the means to avoid these dangerous ‘single stories’, the means by which we can bring the marginalised voices to centre stage.

Is our own English department here at York ‘decolonised’? Does it need to be? Can it ever be? It is certainly food for thought.

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