We’ve all heard of the Canon, right? Usually known as the Western Canon—although this designation is proving more and more limiting—it’s a collection of books, plays, poems, and other literary works that scholars generally agree are all worthy of study, appreciation, and preservation. I say generally since there is no clear list that everyone can agree on and definitely say “These are the greatest works ever made, THE END.”
Of course you already knew that since you clicked on an article with the words “literary” and “canon” in it. And you also saw the word “diversify” so you probably concur that “the canon,” or rather, various versions of it you’ve seen, are pretty packed with lots of dudes that are:
- just white dudes. There are just… so many of them.
And so, so many great works of art have been written by the whitest dudes, but you no doubt believe that there have to be great works written by not-white not-dudes, right? Yes, obviously! But since most canons are assembled by white dudes who spend most of their time reading stuff written by white dudes about other white dudes, most literary canon lists are get stuck in some kind of white dude rut, spinning their wheels but going nowhere and just spraying more white dudes everywhere.
Anyway! I may not be a professor emeritus with a tenure at the finest literary college, but I’ve read enough to know there are so absolutely phenomenal works written by women of colour out there that are worthy of the same veneration and appreciation that many works in the literary canon have been receiving for years. So here are just a few of my suggestions for books by women of colour that deserve to be in the canon. I’m going to compare these books to ones that are already accepted in most versions of the Literary Canon, so I’m going to be taking books that appear in both Daniel S. Burt’s The Novel 100: A Ranking of Greatest Novels All Time and Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages.
Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
Why it’s in the canon: Delving deep into topics of historiography, 19th century religion and politics, the perpetuation of social injustice, and cultivating empathy in post-Revolutionary, Enlightenment-era France, Hugo’s masterpiece has stood the test of time as a brilliant story of love, suffering, social commentary. The movies and broadway musicals have never truly been able to do justice to the depth and complexity of the novel, mostly because there’s no way to adapt his novella-length diatribes on nuns and sewer-systems.
To add: The Vagrants by Yiyun Li
Why it should be in the canon: Li’s novel tells the story of small, isolated village somewhere in mainland China as it grieves the loss of a young woman who is executed for dissenting against the Communist Party. Although the book is nowhere near as long as Les Miserables, Li is able to accomplish a deep level of pathos and pity for her cast of characters, who are both kind and cruel to one another while mired in inescapable poverty.
There is even a young man named Bashi who appears to be following a Javert-like path of unquestioning loyalty to the law and the powers that be. However, instead of keeping him as a flat stereotype for the other characters to play off of, Li makes Bashi sympathetic and complex as well, although he is still quite deplorable. Other characters, like the crippled but indomitable Nini, would not seem out of place in a novel by Hugo or Dickens, but the way Li portrays Nini’s inner strife adds levels of meaning worthy of scholarly investigation.
Also like Hugo’s work, The Vagrants touches on issues of religion, politics, class, and finding hope in a life filled with unending misery. She does this under the context of a post-Cultural Revolution China, with the small village not yet feeling the effects of the death of Mao Tse-tung. There may not be the same ambling, 100-page long screeds that Hugo’s book has, but The Vagrants offers a similarly stark and all-too-real look into a world that many Western readers don’t often see, while offering layers of internal conflict and characterization missing from Les Miserables.
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
Why it’s in the canon: A classic bildungsroman about a boy named Pip who ascends through the Victorian class system, Dickens’ novel is famous for being darkly comic, narratively complex, and emotionally poignant. The novel explores themes of love, hope, judgment, empathy, loss, as well as social issues including Christian morality the role of women in 19th century Britain. Great Expectations has been adapted to film many times, but the staying power of the book is due in large part to its cast of unforgettable characters and settings combined with a pastiche of literary genres that make it a romance, a crime thriller, a comedy, and even a picaresque (well, it’s picaresque… esque).
To add: Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat
Why it should be in the canon: Danticat’s first and most famous book doesn’t have the academic clout or prosaic density of Dickens work, but holy crap does this book pack an emotional punch. Also a coming-of-story, Breath, Eyes, Memory details the early life of Sophie and the darkness and mental fragility that plagues those around her.
Like Pip in Great Expectations, Sophie discovers a number of dark secrets about her past, but instead of learning about secret benefactors and hidden parentages, Sophie learns of her mother’s tortured sexual history which tortures both women and skews the value they give themselves and others.
Sophie’s ascent may not seem as dramatic as a young blacksmith becoming a world-traveling lawyer, but as she moves back and forth from Haiti to the United States, enters and leaves relationships, and meets her mother and becomes one herself, Sophie accomplishes far more mentally and emotionally and than Pip ever did. She struggles with the social pressure for female purity, loving her mother in the midst of emotional abuse, and finding freedom from the demons not just of her own past, but that of an entire country.
Breath, Eyes, Memory may not be as funny as Great Expectations, but it showcases the complexity of inner turmoil Dickens simply couldn’t.
The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe / Herzog by Saul Bellow / The Red and the Black by Stendhal / and many others
Why they are in the canon: So remember at the top when I said the canon was full of white dudes? Well, if there’s one thing white dudes love writing about, it’s white dudes. But not just that! White dudes having crises! All three of these novels follow an indecisive white dude as he meanders through a series of episodic encounters and has a breakdown concerning something messed up in his life and/or his life.
In fact, you could create an entire genre out of “books-about-inconsistent-white-dude-having-existential-breakdown-that-receives-instant-literary-acclaim.” Hamsun’s Hunger, Joyce’s Ulysses, Mann’s Death in Venice, Lowry’s Under the Volcano, Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and pretty much anything by Fitzgerald or Hemingway all focus on characters who make poor decisions, take little responsibility for their actions, and worrying about the state of their respective lives.
Of course, these are all great books, and they address a multitude of issues, including cultural restrictions, societal hypocrisy, areligious ethics, and the oppression of racial, sexual, and religious minorities. In fact, the idea of a single character’s inner strife reflecting larger or more widespread issues is a foundational element of the modern novel. However, it seems odd that so many books entered into the literary canon focus primarily on the inner lives of just… white… dudes.
Why they should be in the canon: Honestly, I could just start listing awesome books by people who are neither a) white nor b) dudes, but I’ll try to stay focused here.
Like I said, exploring complex themes through intimate human experiences is basically what novels and the whole literary canon are about in the first place. So novels like the ones listed above—and others such as Kang’s The Vegetarian, Robinson’s Monkey Beach, and Desai’s Clear Light of Day—that use episodic or slow-burn narratives, coupled with a character’s breakdown concerning their misfortunes, are exactly the kind of works destined to join the canon.
The difference is that because these novels—and others such as Adichie’s Americanah, Ward’s Salvage the Bones, and Desai (the other one)’s The Inheritance of Loss—are not written by nor are about white dudes, they address a multitude of issues the other books do not, including post-colonialism, cultural diaspora, Western military imperialism, sexual repression and oppression, cultural genocide, and gender-related economic disparities.
The truth is, the canon has never been a definitive list, but a conversation among literary academics and enthusiasts. The problem is when that conversation doesn’t include some absolutely spectacular works coming from around the globe, the canon becomes restricted, definitively.
We need to keep the conversation going, including more and more great women writers and POC writers who deserve to have their work studied, appreciated, and preserved for years to come.