Dead White Guys (TM): On Diversifying the Canon

Five months ago (has it been that long??), I took my last requirement to graduate as an English major from Trinity, a little white haven. Yet again, I was the only international student in class. Yet again, I was the only one who sounded like me.

Paradoxically, the English department was a refuge. The professors took me under their wing. They were empathetic and asked the right questions and made me feel like I was as much a part of their classroom as just about anyone else.

But I was still agonizingly out of place. Not because the classroom was exclusive. But because the texts were.

In the four years I spent at college, I immersed myself in iterations of Milton and Melville and Wordsworth. There was something aesthetically pleasing about seeing pages annotated with yellow sticky tabs peeking out the top of a tattered Paradise Lost or a five-times reused Norton Anthology. I felt oh-so-literary. And I was good. I could analyze the shit out of even the most complex prose, defend the tediousness of Ulysses, extoll the floweriness of Forster. I had a knack for recognizing patterns and constructing complex arguments to make sense of them. I was a good student of literature.

I was a good student of literature who felt nothing about the words she so painstakingly analyzed. I was so convincing while mechanically picking apart metaphor and epithet that I could mask the extraordinary chasm between me and the texts I studied. It was validating to be in touch with a literary world ascribed such intellectual value, validating to know I was becoming “cultured”, but I was not moved. I did not feel.

Disclaimer: There are exceptions to this generalization, as there are to most. Yet for every occasional moment of delight, there were that many more dead ends, references that meant little, closed off spaces that I wasn’t privy to.

As college went by, I became less and less comfortable with this disconnect. I started questioning my choice of major, the narrative of identity I had constructed for myself. As enjoyable as arguing the merits of one literary period over another was, it felt hollow, unimportant. Exposed to a xenophobic, vitriolic world, Milton and his Biblical fantasies zoomed less and less out of focus. I struggled to resist the oversold narrative of poetry as irrelevant, English as a cop out field of study, but it was tantalizing. I saw people around me who engaged with the the poetry they read, who felt real anguish upon encountering Bleak House and Jane Eyre. As hard as I tried, I wasn’t them.

***

At some point I resigned myself to understanding literature as a field of study, rather than as something personal, intimately connected to my being. There was a lovely turn of phrase here, a lilting metaphor there, but nothing felt immediate, cutting. Nothing sliced open my insides and made me guffaw or rage or weep.

Then I found Fatimah Asghar.

I don’t want to get co opted by the narrative that WoC writers are worth reading simply to be read. Trauma poetry is trending in the most glorious and ghastly display of wounds. I remember going to my first slam poetry meet and asking, “is the whole point of this to grieve mutually”? Contemporary writing culture tends to conceptualize poetry as a vessel for any trauma, all trauma to sit in, stagnantly festering. There is something tremendously off-putting about poetry that is lauded for its content without being critiqued for its form.

This is what drew me to Asghar: her poetry is rich in the ambiguities that mark overlapping identities. Her writing leaps out at you with questions; asking you to be confused with her, to flit back and forth in time and space and experience a life of liminality. There is a vibrancy to her poems, a joy and horror that is corporeal in its vividity. Her poetry stands on its own, resplendent in its imagery and intimacy.

Yet Asghar is a Pakistani-American poet who writes about her identity. It is certainly no coincidence that her writing calls out to me in ways that even the most magnificent of Keats’ images cannot. Trauma and culture are intimately woven into her narratives. But they are not her crutches. Hers is not some Rupi Kaur brand of poetry whose pseudo-universality adopts South Asianness when convenient. Asghar’s poetry recognizes itself as a product of certain contexts. It captures an audience through its specificity without making any attempt to pander or titillate.

Asghar’s poetry opened spaces of ambiguity in me that were patched over by years and years of submersion in colonialist rhetoric. Her poems made sense like nothing I had ever studied before. They were not reductive, they did not simplify. I read them and raged and puzzled over the layers of gangrenous complexity rotting in my body.

Everyone wants us to read Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Jhumpa Lahiri. These are supposed to be our people. The same names get thrown around as “postcolonial writers”, “immigrant writers”. We get our five tokens in the ring and we cling to them as though they are all we have. But they are not enough. Immersed in a pool of dead white guys™, we, the marginalized, the outsiders, the leftovers, need our voices to stop echoing back at us. We need diverse.

***

What does diversifying the canon mean?

So often, diversity is framed as though it is for the benefit of the mainstream, for the students who already have representation to engage with the margins. “A diverse syllabus” “a diverse college experience”. What better way for white kids to learn about black people?

For whom is representation? For whom are we ticking boxes? I don’t feel any more visible in the works of VS Naipaul than I do in the works of dead white guys™ .

One could argue that visibility is hardly the point of a literature classroom. Few English departments ever claim to be teaching literature to make students feel seen. The study of literature does not revolve around feelings.

Except when it is critical that it should. It is no wonder I was the only international student I can remember in my four years of college who majored in English (or at least one of a tiny, tiny minority). Students who have grown up being taught the history of the West know the events of the industrial revolution contextualized by Wordsworth or Blake. They know the history of slavery in the United States and, whether liberal or not, they know certain words are off limits and certain subjects are too sensitive to bring up.

When I stepped into a literature classroom, I was expected to know all of this. My lack of awareness was treated with incredulity followed by an apologetic acknowledgement that I’m not “from here”, so how would I know? In heated discussions about Melville’s relationship to the civil war or Dickens’ reaction to the industrial revolution, I would, so very often, find myself utterly lost because I knew so very little about the contexts being discussed.

I learnt. I read and read and read so I could operate on the same level as the pool of American kids who grew up steeped in Americana, world war trivia and the Western literary canon. I’d like to think I did a pretty good job of covering that gap, but the effort was mechanical, deliberate. I wanted to explore my own stories, the stories of my people.

When I read the likes of Fatimah Asghar, I am visible. I can contribute because I can identify. And that is crucial. When you try to up the diversity in a classroom, it is simply not fair to keep teaching the same pool of texts that catered to an all white male cohort of decades gone by. The students who “bring the colour” to your classroom are equally entitled to engaging with the complexity of their people and their pasts.

So I read Fatimah Asghar and Meena Kandasamy and Ghassan Zaqtan and Suheir Hammad and Safia Elhillo. I read poets who live and write in the world I occupy. I read Porochista Khakpour and Rabeh Alameddine and ask myself if hyphenated authors must write only about their hyphens. I read and read and I question. I read writers who capture nuances of lived experience that works by dead white men simply cannot.

Perhaps it is not the job of college English departments to make a student feel. Perhaps the expectation that I should be visible, that I should be analyzable in the works I am taught is somewhat mawkish. But in the quest for classroom diversity, empathy is essential. Static texts by canonized authors from the same milieu taught generation after generation laugh in the face of the performance of diversity.

There are changes being made.The introduction of niche courses on immigrant fiction and queer poetry is something of a move forward. But there is still a great deal of anxiety associated with incorporating contemporary and marginalized voices as linchpins of an English curriculum. Contemporizing your syllabus still feels tokenistic. We need courses and classrooms and professors who are willing to reject abstract canonization and engage with new kinds of literature. We need to eradicate dead white guys™. It is simply not fair that  the same voices keep being shoved down our throats with the conviction that literature is a monolith to be swallowed whole. We need to be heard.

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