Black lives matter: Decolonizing my book shelf

I have been quiet these last months, not due just to the pandemic. The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery felt like a gut punch. The violence perpetrated on these people, and so many others, is overwhelming – and kick-started some deep self-reflection.

The reality of racism is now being live-streamed to everyone’s homes. The tragically prophetic words from Will Smith, shared on the Late Show in 2016 and circling yet again, have been haunting me for months: “Racism is not getting worse; it is getting filmed.”

We are shown these images of police violence against Black people, but why do the stories stop there? Where is the everyday life of BIPOC people – the artists, entrepreneurs, financiers, volunteers and family members? It doesn’t take much scrutiny to see how film, television and books falls short of truly representing the diverse world of humans around us – a key component of mutual understanding and respect.

I see this in my home, as well. Looking at my bookcase, it’s painfully clear what an undergraduate education in English literature will yield: hundreds of books by old white dudes.

I studied “the canon” in university: Chaucer, Dickens and Hardy. Shakespeare’s early work prior to 1601, and then plays onward. One class devoted the entire semester to Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queen – the longest poem in the English language at 1,053 pages. I somehow escaped the Hemingway trap, thank heavens.

The studies upheld European male writers, predominantly British, as the standard to which all others must be compared. They were “classics.”

Were all texts exclusively by white males? No, but the proportion of texts by female, Black, Indigenous, Métis, Inuit, people of colour, and LGBTQ2IA writers is far less. This is not acceptable.

Perusing current course offerings at my alma mater, it appears this is starting to change. Indigenous authors are among the study options now, although as an elective. There are some studies of modern works, which touch on racism – but, as is too often the case, focused on the American context and the civil rights movement in particular.

In the last few years, I have intentionally purchased writing by diverse authors, and intend to buy even more in the future. Each writer provides me greater insight into families, cultures and perspectives that, as a white person, I have not been privy to. By expanding my literary horizons, I have read more about racism in Canada during contemporary times in neighbourhoods like my own. Bias, violence, discriminatory legislation and wilful neglect of our duty of care: stories by diverse authors put a human face to systemic racism.

Children’s author Mo Willems once wrote that, “If you ever find yourself in the wrong story, leave.” I offer this list of recommended books for white readers to leave the traditional English canon behind, and begin the process of decolonizing their bookshelves.

This is not an anti-racist reading list; these are not books by academic researchers designed to unlearn racism. As a white, middle-class woman, I don’t profess to be an expert in this field and I’m not suggesting the following is part of a “new canon” of BIPOC literature nor the only authors to read (I honestly struggled with limiting this list). These are stories – fictional and non-fiction accounts of human beings affected by the racist and colonial systems we find ourselves in today. I have an admitted bias toward Canadian authors (I will always love you #canlit). These are merely titles that diversified my reading, introduced new BIPOC voices and helped me understand complex struggles that marginalized characters face.

Polished Hoe book coverThe Polished Hoe, Austin Clarke

This 2002 Scotiabank Giller Prize winning story is a literary masterpiece. They say writing an entire novel of dialogue is impossible, until the unforgettable Austin Clarke proves the declaration wrong. This story is heart-rending, and the tension between Mary-Mathilda and the police is tangible from the very first pages.

The Break by Katherena Vermette book coverThe Break, Katherena Vermette

Trauma touches generations like a drop in water: the ripples spread far and wide. Katherena Vermette’s novel follows a multigenerational Métis-Anishinaabe family dealing with the fallout of a shocking crime. The writing is also incredibly crafted, which has earned Vermette several awards.

Book cover of Brother by David ChariandyBrother, David Chariandy

Teenaged brothers navigate a world fraught with prejudice and poverty in suburban Ontario. This story of a new Canadian family is haunting in its tragic loss echoing, sadly, current events. David Chariandy claimed the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize for this novel.

Book cover of Keeper N' Me by Richard WagameseKeeper N’ Me, Richard Wagamese

What is our identity without our people? Richard Wagamese’s novel follows Garnet Raven’s experience of being apprehended by social workers at the age of three and growing up in the foster care system. He finds relatives as a young adult, uncovering his family’s rich traditions and community. This lovely tale is shaped with two points of view, adding to the mysticism and relational connection.

Book cover of Seven Fallen Feathers by Tanya TalagaSeven Fallen Feathers, Tanya Talaga

Sometimes truth is more horrifying than fiction. Tanya Talaga’s research is a scathing indictment on society’s blatant disregard for human life and human rights. Children from First Nations communities are having to travel hundreds of kilometres from home to access education, only to be denigrated, abused and, in some cases, killed when they arrive in the host communities. Talaga’s book covers 2000 to 2011, when seven Indigenous high school children died in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Prepare to be chilled by the system’s response.

Roots, Alex Haley

Book cover of Roots by Alex HaleyIt has been made into a movie, mini-series, audiobook and a quandary for genealogists and historians. I read Roots: The Saga of an American Family at the age of 16, and I vividly remember wanting to rip my skin off as guilty penance for the sins of my ancestors. There has been much critique of Alex Haley’s research for the foundation of his book. But if you consider it historical fiction, the “could-be” story of how one person came to be in America, Roots unpacks a lot of baggage of what the characters’ ancestors may have endured.

And if you have gotten this far: consider purchasing a copy or two of these books and passing it along to friends. (All book cover images link to a national online book seller.) Buying books by BIPOC writers supports their work and encourages publishers to keep diverse stories coming.