ER '20

Decolonizing Our Bookshelves

How to read fewer white guys, and have fun doing it.
By Darshita Jain

Darshita Jain (NAJ 2020) is the lit editor at F Newsmagazine. She oscillates between being the human version of a question mark and an exclamation mark.

Illustration by Cat Cao

Let’s admit it: ‘Decolonize’ means so much! Looking for definitions is a rabbit hole so many of us have fallen down. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “the action or process of a state withdrawing from a former colony, leaving it independent.” But the Oxford English Dictionary isn’t exactly the expert on decolonization, now, is it? That thought is the first step to decolonizing your bookshelf. Who do you go to to explain decolonization, then? Perhaps the idea of a singular definition itself is colonial.

I found an idea by critical theorist Frantz Fanon particularly accurate. In his book The Wretched of The Earth, he claims the moral core of decolonization is a commitment to the individual human dignity of each member of populations typically dismissed as “the masses.”

Decolonization does not have a single definition or a single solution. The world we live in is a byproduct of our colonial histories, and one of the most insidious effects of colonization is its remaining presence in language and literature. As someone who grew up not-in-America, I remember the colonial shame and the subsequent snobbery that resulted from knowing more white writers and more white culture. If you knew Shakespeare and Mark Twain and Alexandre Dumas and G. K. Chesterton and Charles Dickens, you could be called smart. No matter if I didn’t know my own grandfather had written 16 novels in my mother tongue. India is the only country that houses around 19,000 colloquial languages and 121 official languages. The number of non-English languages that exist in the world is a not-so-small indication of the number of perspectives we ignore when we only read English.

Expand your definition of what makes something “good.”

To take away a language is to take away a culture and a history. This phenomenon exists everywhere. We tend to never ask why some books became ‘classics’ and why most of these were only written by white men. The problem goes deeper than that, considering that even now, 76% of publishing professionals — the people we might call the gatekeepers — are white. The books being picked up, published, and marketed to most of us around the world are also white. Whiteness has become the standard, the best of the best. Now that conversations around decolonization are increasingly taking place in the United States, it is still worth understanding how most post-colonial education still considers white writing and ideas as the standards to measure our own languages and culture against. The colonial shame we all live and breathe in makes our own work seem lesser, and even shameful. 

We are here, in the middle of this conversation. So look around, behind you, on the fancy bookshelf all set up for your Zoom call, and ask yourself this. Decolonizing your bookshelf starts with this. A lot of this depends on your own research. We are not defining a curriculum. We are going to make our own versions of a decolonized library. Let’s examine this question: What are some traits we all have owing to our colonial conditioning?

Language, to begin with. How many books on your shelf are in English? What does that mean? What narratives have been erased just by virtue of that? If your mother tongue is not English, how many books are in your native language? Are there any translations you own? Those count. Expand your definition of what makes something good. Good English does not a good piece of writing make.

How many books are written by non-white authors? Have you considered that, if you identify as white and read only the work of white authors, you are in some ways listening to an extension of your own voice on repeat? For every book you read written by a white author, read one written by a person of color.

Now ask yourself this. How many writers on this shelf are male? How many straight male voices do you have, compared to women’s voices, straight or otherwise? White or BIPOC? What does trans literature look like? How many trans voices are on your shelf? How many LGBTQ writers? How many non-binary authors? If you don't read their voices, how will you ever know their side of the truth?

Take out all the books which are problematic or enforce colonial biases. You are already living in this world. You don’t need someone reinforcing the idea of racism or gender violence in your reading too.

If you have people of color on your bookshelf, ask yourself this: What kinds of stories are they telling? Are they only narratives of trauma? Educating also means moving beyond the merit system of what sells most. Narratives which are not the best or most excellent also hold some truth. Just as white authors are allowed to write trash, so are people of color.

How many writers are still alive? What are the realities of people living right now in the world — non-white, non-male realities — and how do they look? Include more contemporary writers. #teachlivingpoets, a movement started by educator Melissa Smith, is a great place to begin for recommendations

Start early. If you have younger siblings or children, for every male writer they read, get them a female voice to read as well. For every white male voice, back it up with a non-male, non-white voice.

Reading is for fun, education, and conversation. Reading is how you travel. So, lastly, If you want to know about a country not your own, read a writer from there. Not a white voice citing some research they did once.

As Audre Lorde writes, “The master's tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” For true change of thought and education, we need more stories, more realities, and more perspectives. This is an exercise in building your own curriculum, choosing what you invest in, and choosing where you spend your time, money, and education. We are building our own toolbelt. Only then can we be equipped to demand more and design better. f

Some books to begin with:

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