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?