Birmingham Lit Fest Presents….

The Birmingham Literature Festival Podcast - Welcome to the very first Birmingham Literature Festival podcast, bringing writers and readers together to discuss some of 2020’s best books. Each Thursday we’ll be releasing new episodes of the podcast, including wonderful discussions about writing, poetry, big ideas and social issues. Join us each week for exciting and inspiring conversations with new, and familiar, writers from the Midlands and beyond.

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episode 17: Season 2: This Is The Canon


This is the Canon, written by Joan Anim-Addo, Deirdre Osborne and Kadija Sesay, is a book that aims to decolonise what we think of as the literary canon, which is all too often dominated by white authors. In this week’s episode the authors talk to writer Thomas Glave about disrupting the accepted norm, highlighting different cultures and stories and their favourite books to add to your bookshelves.
You can download our podcast episodes from all the places you would normally get your podcasts every Thursday and follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook @bhamlitfest. All of our festival events can be found on our website www.birminghamliteraturefestival.org. 


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Credits

Curator: Shantel Edwards (Festival director)
Production: 11C/ Birmingham Podcast Studios for Writing West Midlands

TRANSCRIPT

BLF Series 2, Episode 7: This is the Canon 


Intro


Welcome to the second series of the Birmingham Lit Fest Presents…podcast. We are really excited to be back for a second season and to continue to connect readers and writers in the Midlands, and far beyond. 


You can download our podcast episodes from all the places you would normally get your podcasts every Thursday and follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook @bhamlitfest. All of our festival events can be found on our website www.birminghamliteraturefestival.org. 


This is the Canon, written by Joan Anim-Addo, Deirdre Osborne and Kadija Sesay, is a book that aims to decolonise what we think of as the literary canon, which is all too often dominated by white authors. In this week’s episode the authors talk to writer Thomas Glave about disrupting the accepted norm, highlighting different cultures and stories and their favourite books to add to your bookshelves. 


Thomas Glave 

Hello, welcome to another episode of the Birmingham Lit Fest Presents. Today we're very thrilled to have three fantastic guests discussing their new book, This is the Canon: How to Decolonise Your Bookshelves in 50 books. Our guests today are the co-authors of this title, Professor Joan Anim-Addo, who is Professor Emeritus of Caribbean Literature and Culture at Goldsmiths University, and the co-founder of the world’s first MA in Black British literature. Also Dr Deirdre Osborne, who is a Reader in English Literature and Drama at Goldsmiths University, and the co-founder of the world's first Black British literature MA. She is also associate editor of the journal Women's Writing, and she edited the Cambridge Companion to British Black and Asian literature. Our third co-author is Kadija Sesay, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Kadija Sesay is a writer and editor of several anthologies, and is the founder of Sable literary magazine, and Afro poetry app. She is also co-founder of the Mboka Festival in The Gambia, and as a co-editor of IC3 published by Penguin, which will soon celebrate its 20th anniversary. We're very happy to tell you that This is the Canon is now out and available in bookshops and online everywhere. Welcome to our three guests. Thank you very much for joining us today. I'd like to start by asking you in sequence some questions just about this idea of decolonising. Starting with you, Professor Anim-Addo. What is decolonising exactly in the context of this book project?


Joan Anim-Addo

Thank you very much, Thomas. I think that decolonising has been a subject on the lips of lots of people and it's always seemed as if it's something that someone else is doing. And as readers, it seemed to us that we have a task also too. As readers, it seemed important for us to read a range of books, and insist on reading a range of books with different ways of storytelling, different characters, different rhythms from different spaces, not just Britain, for example, but to read as well as we possibly could. So, decolonising the canon, in a way opens up the way for the reader to take on that possibility, equips the reader to find a range of books to begin thinking about reading much more widely.


Thomas Glave 

Thank you, Professor, very intriguing, very provocative indeed. And Dr Osborne, could you expound on this question as well? What is decolonising for you as a co-author of this book?


Deirdre Osborne

Well, I guess what's so wonderful about the book is that Joan and Kadija and I work from three very different locations in terms of perhaps how we were raised, when we were raised, where we were raised, and where we ended up living. And so decolonising is something that we have had, I think, to embrace really with all our work in literature and academia and also in a sort of literary activism that we've all been pursuing throughout our careers. And so, for me, I think it's an unquestioningly transnational idea of the capabilities of literature, that we need to open up our horizons because one person's canon, which is the sort of agreed list that gets consolidated throughout education - everyone must read these books to be an educated or learned person, which as we know, has had quite a limited framework around it - so one person's canon in another part of the world is an unknown book. And so, what we're doing with our work is to sort of make that more porous, to bring that together. So, something that might be canonical in Britain or in Senegal, and isn't in either of the other spaces, that we understand that actually, they can be read and enjoyed and also, they can serve as an inspiration to just how pluralized human beings are in the way they create and represent their experiences. So, decolonising, for me, is very much I suppose, opening up those borders of reader awareness.


Thomas Glave

Thank you, Dr Osborne. Excellent, really fascinating. Then Miss Sesay, I'd like to ask you as well. What is, for you, decolonising?


Kadija Sesay

What's been interesting, as I've just been kind of finishing up my own research for my PhD as well, which has been around Black British publishing, I actually think of it very much in a publishing context, as well. So, working with a major publisher, on such a book, when my whole work has been around decolonising publishing has been very interesting, as I'm sure you could imagine. But also, I won't go over what Joan and Deirdre have said, but I think one of the things that really, that came out of working on this in terms of an extension of thinking around decolonising, which is very easy to forget, is that this is just the first step. I think, as Deirdre mentioned, this is just a selection of books, that could be decolonising your literature, but it goes past the selection of books, it goes past showing your guests who come to dinner how decolonised you are by showing them what's on your bookshelf, it goes then to the reading, how are you reading this work and interpreting it? You have to then start shifting your mind about how you interpret it, yes, you're going to come to it from your own background and your own understanding of literature. But then you have to start thinking in other ways, as well, of how to interpret this literature. And also, from then, you know, not only in terms about how you write about it, how it's written about, and that is not just for students as well but how is this work written about, how the writer is written about. So decolonising, we've just started, this is just the tip, in terms of decolonising literature.


Thomas Glave 

Thank you, I must say, as a reader of this book, one of the many things that I found fascinating about this book was its broad ambition. And its attempt, I think you've really succeeded, each of you as co-authors of this book, in showing us the vast geography and the vast possibilities of redrawing the maps, right, of how we read literature and how we experience literature. And I wanted to ask Professor Anim-Addo, if you could actually speak about this very vexing question of the canon that you are addressing with this book, like, what is this thing, this obstacle, if you will, that we call, that you are calling the canon?


Joan Anim-Addo

The real obstacle Thomas, is what we have learned, as my colleague, Deirdre has just said, is what so many people learn as they go out into schools, and then perhaps on to university, they are told again, and again, in one way or another, these are the books that they need to read. And I think as this is a beginning, we really need to say to people, actually, there is a whole range of books. And if you try a range, you're going to have a much richer experience. And you're going to be at the same time, not just widening your horizon, but you'll be able to become much more knowledgeable about the real world in which we live.


Thomas Glave 

Yes, indeed. And Dr Osborne, I'm wondering, as we listen to Professor Anim-Addo expound on broadening, thinking about geography, and you've mentioned previously the term literary activism, could you speak about the geography of this book, and how, as a co-author, you came to find and decide upon these writers from these different geographies that are in this very vast, very profound collection of people?


Deirdre Osborne

Well, one of the ways in which the world gets conceived of is very much terrestrial. It’s very territory bound, whereas we decided to look at the oceans. So, oceans are points of continuity around the globe, they are points that transport people and goods all around the planet. And they're a sort of more fluid possibility for locating regions and how people move from those regions. And also, what kind of cultures grow in those regions and ended up in other spaces. And so I guess, in relation to the canon and the fluidity of canonicity, we want to say that it's very much about democratising this sort of space, democratising the canon so that people are exposed to, and can make judicious selections of, what they might want to read from this sense of continuity, this sort of framework of the ocean as a global, unstoppable presence, I suppose in all our lives, but we do have many omissions. So as Kadija said, we want to say this is very much a stepping stone, a springboard. It is definitely not the sealed off finished product at all but really the initial step.


Thomas Glave 

Thank you for this. Miss Sesay, following on Professor Anim-Addo and Dr Osborne's remarks, I'm wondering if you can speak to your own particular concerns dealing with this book that, as you said in your remarks a few minutes ago, still has so much terrain to cover, this is laying groundwork for many other books to come that will address these literary inequities, if you will. Could you speak about this a bit, because again, the book has such an enormous project and I think really succeeds in many ways in this project and this ambition.


Kadija Sesay

I think one of the things that needs to be noted is this book was being discussed and conceived, I wasn't in the original discussion, but I know it was being discussed and conceived way before the situation of what happened with George Floyd. So, I don't want people to think that it's come out from that, because it hasn't, because number one, because for those of us who work in this area, this has been a constant, sore point for us and a constant thing that needed to be worked on for many years. So, you know, it just happened at that point. And saying that, yes, I think there will be a great deal of interest, more interest, around you know, looking at this now, if that's what we want to call it since then. But also, we also need to think that we know that these things can go in trends. This is not a trend. This needs to be built upon and strengthened. And not just in oh, well, we've done a little bit now around decolonising literature and yes, we've accepted that we can include some of these other texts on our lists, to have classics for the canon and leave it there, we can't just leave it there, there's a lot of work to be done. And this should not just be seen as some kind of trend. Really, I think that's one of the things that kind of concerns me in in how people will treat this.


Thomas Glave 

I couldn't agree more with your remarks, Miss Sesay, just now and definitely saying this is not a trend. This book strikes me very much as a cornerstone published by Greenfinch Books. And I wonder about, going back to Professor Anim-Addo, speaking about the relationships with the writers and selecting the writers, speak about that if you could please Professor a bit in terms of the experience of working with these writers and the variations upon themes and themes upon variations and so on.


Joan Anim-Addo

Thomas, I've been teaching non canonical literature for very many years. researching and teaching in the field. It was my choice - like everyone else I grew up and went through the system learning about canonical literature. This happens even more when you are a literature student. So, I broke with that, through a lot of research and teaching around initially Caribbean writing. And of course, this was my stepping stone to a much broader literature. We're also now thinking about Black British writing and the university system has only recently recognised that there is a body of work to be thought of there. But also, as I've read more and more outside the canon myself, I've become more open to writers who are perhaps neither Caribbean nor Black British, nor from the US, but a much broader range of writing. And in a way, I think this is what we're trying to help people to do. So, the process for me has been about interest first and starting from there, I made my selection. 


Deirdre Osborne

When Joan just referred now to being taught the canon, and that we all sort of swallowed whole, but not necessarily without getting indigestion, I must add, I was someone who, even from school onwards, although I knew the canon, and I read everything very obediently, I wrote on anything but the canon. And so, this was always a very tempestuous relationship I had with my educational environments, notwithstanding universities, that I didn't want to write on anything canonical, I wanted to find out that which was either at the edge or was not actually even acknowledged and bring it right into the centre. And so, my particular teaching has been armed by that kind of impetus. And I think a very important question in terms of how we selected works to, in this particular book, were the presence of indigenous peoples, First Nation people, because working from where we do in Britain, the heart of the former imperial empire, we have to ask a necessary question about what kind of knowledge is needed, reading from this context, to understand and appreciate indigenous writing, because indigenous people are writing from cultural positions or geographical locations that we physically have no contact with, and definitely is a legacy of what the imperial colonial project was, ideologically have no contact with, and colonial rule really violently foisted a vanishing act upon colonised people’s presence. And so, the beauty of being able to select work that comes from those particular spaces that is very much unknown in Britain, and for example, Australia, which is a major literary environment, the work of indigenous writers rarely gets into the British psyche. And so, the questions have to be asked why, given that they can do trade deals very well, what's wrong with bringing literature into sort of opening up literary partnership in that way. So, for me, the selection of the work was very much impelled by those sorts of regions too.


Thomas Glave 

I find myself nodding in absolute agreement. Looking through this book, and looking at the ways in which these writers just completely expand our sense of the world, we did not know already about these works, right? Adding more stories to the global conversation that is incredibly important. And I'd like to ask you, Miss Sesay, could you speak about this question as well, your experience with the writers and your thoughts about differences, similarities and so on?


Kadija Sesay

Yeah, sure. I think one of the things is, in terms of talking about the differences and similarities, is the fact that, you know, we also, even though these are mainly authors from Anglophone, from British colonies, we did have to include some of those who were colonised by other nations, particularly French. So, you know, there is a Senegalese writer in there, maybe two, I'm not sure, for example, and they were colonised by France. So, we also have to consider all of that work that we haven't even really tapped into, or tapped into very minimally, of translation, especially from those who their lingua franca was, still is a European language. But still, that work is considered as part of, you know, post-colonial writings that the Anglophone teaching will look at as well, there is so much there, that that needs to be part of it. And I think people forget a lot of the time that some of the books they are reading, especially with writing that is in translation, and people imagine that it arrived in English. And we've got the same with a lot of writers from Africa and the Caribbean, and other places in the world as well. I mean, when you think of it, in the Caribbean, even though we're just looking at, you know, we're looking at islands here, how many languages are there amongst those islands, you know, already how many European languages amongst those islands, and then you've got the Asian subcontinent, and everything. So, there's a lot of literature still to be to be looked at. And will be, at some stage, will be translated some of it in English, more of that work is happening. And what we have been able to do, at least for some of this, is suggest other writers to look at, and other works to look at. And it was really great discovering award-winning writers from Madagascar, you know, which is great that they're getting a little bit of exposure, and some of the writers do their own translation. So as well, you’ve got to think of the different translations also bring about different things, and that as well can involve a certain level of colonisation because depending on who's translating, and how they're interpreting the work, they could put a different twist on it. So, it's very interesting even looking at two versions of translations in itself. So, this would be a very exciting journey. And there's different ways of looking at the book too, because it's very interesting, the way people will start from number one, and work straight through to number fifty. And how much they will gather in their knowledge about that, even if they know some of the writers. I kind of feel sure that there's going to be something in there that they didn't know about a particular writer or their work that they thought that they knew about.


Thomas Glave 

I'm finding, as I think about the book again, and your introduction to the book, I'm finding I'm really arrested by the moral and ethical imperative of this project, how you each, as co-authors, have taken on a task that might have been quite challenging in the publishing world. And fortunately, you have the Greenfinch Press supporting the book. But there is a way in which this sort of work, this work from neglected and ignored populations is still neglected, ignored and side-lined. And you have done something I think eminently heroic, in putting this work front and centre, in changing the map literarily and showing, as I think at one point, Dr Osborne pointed out, the importance, again, of indigenous communities. The other thing that one notes in looking through these selections is that some of the writers in the book come from traditions that have had a very strong and very old oral tradition. So now we are seeing some of these stories and these writers dealing with words on the page and print, that is another way of preserving these very important stories that have been going on for millennia. I wonder if you could just talk, finally, each of you, in going perhaps a step beyond this book and the great groundwork that you've laid, to speaking about a book in particular that is a book that you have been fond of, that you think is germane to this conversation of decolonising and taking on the canon. Professor Anim-Addo?


Joan Anim-Addo

Yes I’ll very happily talk about - it’s not that easy to choose - very happily talk about Simone Schwarz-Bart's The Bridge of Beyond. Here's a book that was written in French and translated into English. We're very fortunate to have this as the translation, of course, and those of us who are interested in Francophone writing, for example, perhaps Francophone Caribbean writing, are always especially interested in Guadeloupe, which is quite a small island, where Simone Schwarz-Bart was born. And she tells this story of a period just after the end of slavery. Now, slavery evokes all kinds of responses, as some people feel they've heard enough, when indeed, they probably haven't. Some people want more. But what Simone Schwarz-Bart does in The Bridge of Beyond, is to quietly tell the story of a very difficult time and to actually revision that time for us, to help the reader to revision that time. It may be simple to imagine that here was emancipation and everything happened, everything changed and that was the end of slavery, and a new life began. But she points out, painstakingly, that that was a very difficult moment for those people who had endured Atlantic slavery. The black people who would been enslaved, understood only too well about the whip and how it was used, which meant that they responded with some violence quite often. The white colonisers who were still there, knew very much about power, how to exert power. So, they did, and they continue to do so. And for some people, the task was how to separate themselves from plantation existence, and Schwarz-Bart, using the Creole language that developed within the Caribbean, tells the story in that kind of voice. She’s a storyteller, and essentially, she's telling the story of her great grandmother, her grandmother and her mother. So, generations of women who have survived and in many ways what she's saying is, look, I know this island might mean all kinds of horrible things. But it’s okay, people have survived. And this is how they survived. And it's really edifying for us today because we think of the Caribbean as a tourist region these days. And so, to have a writer remind us that it's not always been viewed like that, and certainly with good reason, it's not always been viewed like that by the people, by one group of people who were brought there because, of course, the people who were left, were all mostly people who were brought to the region.


Thomas Glave 

Thank you, Professor, fantastic. The Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwarz-Bart of Guadalupe, beautiful novel. Dr Osborne, take us through a book that you feel is germane to this conversation please.


Deirdre Osborne

Well, my choice again, as Joan said, it's really impossible to choose. But as I have, I've chosen The White Girl by the Koori writer, indigenous Australian writer Tony Birch, published in 2019. Tony recently said that he does not know an indigenous person who is not damaged, in some way, and I think that what writing that comes out of Indigenous Australia really opens up is that it is still a colonial country. And that to live in a country where you are the rightful inhabitants, that your sovereignty is to lands that have never been ceded to what was originally the British invasion and then subsequent settlement. This is a book that can get your mind around the impossibility of understanding for many people, what that entails, what it entails to be an indigenous person. Tony is a climate activist. He is renowned worldwide for his work in indigenous sovereignty and climate activism. And also he is a poet. He writes short stories, he's just had two collections come out this year, and a novelist. He is the winner of the Patrick White Literary Award, which is Australia's most prestigious literary award in 2017. And The White Girl immediately tapped into the strength and courage of Indigenous women and the ways in which they protect their families and heritage against the malevolent white male violence and repressive laws. It is set in a particular period of Australia, when removal policies of children from their families decimated kinship ties and belonging on an unimaginable scale. And of course, we now recognize this as the Stolen Generations. And this novel is very much a loving tribute to these people because it's generally overlooked that indigenous people on the Australian continent have the oldest continuous culture in human history. And so, this is what we are working with and from when we engage with this beautiful book. Its set in 1960s, rural Australia, featuring a grandmother Odette Brown, who must save her 12 year old granddaughter Sissy from two threats, removal by the state because Sissy has blonde hair, and also the predatory son of the white pastoralist, who sexually assaulted her mother. Her mother, sadly, but understandably, has not been able to mother her child and fled from the area. So, Odette as Sissy’s grandmother does not even have the right to be able to raise her own granddaughter. And so, she takes action. That means breaking the law. But as Tony Birch beautifully delivers this tale, the reader is with them all the way. And so, what Tony does is bring both aspects of a very, very troubled continent, and its histories into orbit. So, we have an indigenous community, but policed by white men that grew up within that community as well and so the idea of these two very different worldviews existing alongside each other is very important in the book. And of course, we have humorous aspects in this writing. One of the things that we often encounter with work that is from an indigenous people's perspective, is that the topics can be extremely grim, but the writing is exciting. It takes us into new territories, it can be experimental, the descriptive factors, the imagery, the symbolism, that can really lift the works out of being collapsed into sort of a condition of adversity. And that's the beauty of this work. We have formidable characters who are not under the jurisdiction of state welfare. One character Millie Khan buys back land stolen from her people because she's married to an Afghani Camellia Youssef. She doesn't have to be under the jurisdiction of the state. But finally, I just wanted to say about this, that as I mentioned before, indigenous Australian literature is not easily obtainable for British readers. But the rewards gained from reading this novel offer an effective and powerful reminder of resilience, of dignity sustained in the wake of a malignant legacy. And it is very much a shared history. People in Britain share this legacy as well, even though they do not live it directly on the continent or island known as Australia. But I feel like the way in which we can gather greater understanding of tenacity and love that's come out of a lot of suffering, Tony Birch's work definitely offers this in The White Girl.


Thomas Glave 

Thank you Dr Osborne; resilience, dignity, facing down a malignant history, The White Girl by Tony Birch, indigenous Australian writer, beautifully described. Finally, Miss Sesay, please do take us through your ideas and experiences with a book in particular that you feel speaks with, and to, our conversation.


Kadija Sesay

Yeah, I'm going to just talk a little bit about How to Read the Air by Dinaw Mengestu. What is interesting about how to read the air, it's quite a contemporary novel. And it's what I think some people call a slow burner. But it gives so much by the end of it, it really puts you in a position of just deep thought about relationships, whether you're in one or not, whether you've been in one or not, if you haven't been in one you're going to consider do I want to be in one. It's really, really challenging, because the protagonist is a young man who was born in America, he's an Ethiopian American, his parents are both Ethiopian, but he was born in the US and his parents arrived separately in America as refugees. And once they, you know, they've met in Ethiopia, and you know, during a really turbulent period, and a lot of protests were going on. So, they didn't really know each other. And once they arrive, once the wife arrives in the States, and they're together for a very short period of time, they realize they don't actually like each other. And the husband shows his dislike by extreme domestic abuse, I think that's one of the things I actually found troubling in a lot of work was domestic abuse. And then there's the relationship of himself and an African American woman. So he talks about these two marriages. And both of them where, the husbands are not, they're not present, or not so much not present, but the way that they are present is damaging, one physically and one mentally. And for me, by the time I got to the end, what really struck me quite a lot was the fact that relationships are so difficult, no matter how much we try, and people will often blame themselves, or blame the other when a relationship going wrong, when a lot of time, people were just damaged to begin with. And quite a lot of the time that damage is from childhood, no matter what kind of background you came from, if you had some trauma that happened in your childhood, it stays with you, and usually affects a relationship. And I just love the way he talks about that, he goes into some real detail around, especially his relationship and his wife's relationship, just really minute things which in one sense, goes to show you just how normal this relationship is. But also tells you just how there is no way it is going to survive. You know, but that doesn't mean to say they're bad people or it's a bad relationship. They're just people. So, then you start thinking of John Legend's song, you know, we're just ordinary people; we are. And we put so much on ourselves. That's why I really liked it. And I think it's challenging in that way because it does make, it should make people think, I hope it does.


Thomas Glave 

Thank you very much Miss Sesay, How to Read the Air. And will you please tell us the author's name once again, so we can be sure to remember. Dinaw Mengestu, exactly. Thank you, How to Read the Air. Well, we're just about out of time. And I want to thank our magnificent panellists, Professor Joan Anim-Addo, Dr Deirdre Osborne and Miss Kadija Sesay for this fascinating discussion on this fascinating, incredible book. I want to encourage all of our listeners actually, absolutely urge you to go out and buy this book as soon as you can. It's a gorgeous book. It looks beautiful, the contents will change your life. And I want to congratulate the co-authors on this magnificent product and gift to all of us in the world who can read this book and enjoy this book. This is the Canon: Decolonise Your Bookshelves in 50 Books, published by Greenfinch Books, out now everywhere.


Outro


Thank you for listening to this week’s episode of the Birmingham Lit Fest presents…podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, we’d love for you to tell us about it – leave us a review or a rating and find us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook @bhamlitfest. 


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The Birmingham Lit Fest Presents... podcast is produced by 11C and Birmingham Podcast Studios for Writing West Midlands.


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 2021-11-11  36m