The Absence of Colour in the Canon

Yellowed pages of a book
By Anjali Kawa

When we think of classical literature, our thoughts tend to automatically gravitate towards western authors such as Dickens, Bronte and Hardy. While their works are objectively great works of literature that have stood the test of time, they do not resonate with many people, including myself.
I have attempted to connect and relate to the characters who reside in fields of green and manor houses in these plots centred around high society, but. being a child of immigrants living in Greater London, I don’t see resemblances. And isn’t being able to see your own story in the fiction one of the reasons we’re meant to love literature?  Since I was able to understand the concept of universality, I’ve been set on studying English literature. That was until I took the time to look through courses and saw medieval English literature, and volumes of dreary Victorian prose popping up too often for me to justify the price tag of higher education in the UK.
There are other classic works of literature from around the globe that simply aren’t appreciated as much in the west due to the fixation on these old institutional classics. While they are important in shaping the literary and historical past of the West, frankly they cannot be the benchmark for great texts when a myriad of poetry and prose remain undiscovered, simply because the author is black or brown. Colonial literature seems to always be praised while the voices of the oppressed fade into the background. Why do lists of the ‘100 best novels’ only ever contain a handful of POC authors?
I find that even if some of these texts may lose some of their magic during translation, the beauty of the language remains and the culture they explore is deep and rich. This isn’t to say that old English and American classics are undeserving of that title; simply that if someone truly were to claim they love literature, they would take the time to delve into the works of coloured authors.
It is also politically important to consider more texts like these because they allow us to understand different cultures which we may not have any real connection to apart from the general human experience of emotion and feeling. This is what makes these texts even more poignant: if you strip away the context, often they reveal much more about ourselves than we would think. In the current political climate, it’s increasingly urgent to focus our attentions on different perceptions and experiences and exploring the histories of foreign literature is one way to do it.
Here are some of renowned recommendations of classic literature written by people of colour:

Here is a post we published in 2016 by Cia, another woman of colour, regarding this topic which is filled with more contemporary recommendations!