There were a number of reasons which prompted this — my own burgeoning sense of feminism, a growing understanding that men were just ‘writers’, and those of the opposite sex were labelled as ‘women writers’, a nagging fear that the latter was somehow seen as lesser, and a sudden weariness with being forced to view the world through a male lens in mainstream art, from literature to movies to TV shows.
In 2016, I resolved to read more work by writers of colour, particularly by women of colour. I mentioned this on Twitter and was instantly criticised by a white man.
I was told that I was being sexist against men (sigh) and racist against white people (double sigh). He told me he didn’t ‘see colour’ and encouraged me to do the same. As Daily Show host Trevor Noah asked, “So what do you do at traffic lights?”
It’s always Caucasian people who say they don’t see race, it’s part of our white privilege that we don’t have to think about our ethnicity in this way.
Minorities have never had the same opportunity to be ‘colour blind’ in a world that constantly reminds them of their apparent ‘otherness’.
Due to this inconsequential spat on Twitter, it was with interest that I read about students at a prestigious university in London who were demanding that philosophers such as Plato, Immanuel Kant, and Descartes be taken off their curriculum because they are white, arguing that this is part of a wider campaign to “decolonise” the university and “address the structural... legacy of colonialism.”
The backlash was swift, with Anthony Sheldon, vice-chancellor of Buckingham University, saying that “we need to understand the world as it was and not rewrite history as some might like it to have been”.
In response to that I would like to quote Walter Benjamin: “History is written by the victors” — and in this case, history has been written by white men about white men, everyone else being conveniently sidelined.
We saw this perfectly exemplified in Ireland with the revisionist history of the 1916 Rising, all the women who were involved written out of the story, and we have seen this time and time again in the literary world. For hundreds of years, women were relegated to the domestic sphere; the public sphere, which included politics, public speaking, and writing, was the domain of men.
Any women who dared to attempt to enter into this space were often vilified, like the godmother of feminism, Mary Wollstonecraft. A Vindication of the Rights of Women was published in 1790 and Wollstonecraft was declared ‘unnatural’ afterwards, her reputation in ruins.
It’s hardly surprising that the Bronte sisters wrote under male pseudonyms or that Jane Austen published her novels anonymously. Women who did publish under their own name saw their work dismissed as trivial, and described as “silly novels by lady novelists”.
This marginalisation of literature written by women (and by people of colour) is still evident today. Take a look at any list of the ‘best novels ever written’ and you will see it consists of mostly white men.
If you look at the syllabus in English departments at some of the best universities in the world, you will see the same.
VIDA, an organisation which compiles data about gender representation in literary publications, found that in 2014 only 29% of novels reviewed in the New Republic and The Nation were by women, falling to a mere 27% of the in the Times Literary Supplement.
Race also plays a huge part. The author Roxane Gay scrutinised the book pages of the New York Times and discovering that out of the 742 books that were reviewed in 2011, only 87 were written by non-white authors. Even the reviews themselves were exclusionary, with 90% written by white writers.
Examining some of the world’s most celebrated literary awards, the gender disparity is evident again. Only 12% of Nobel prize winners have been women, rising to 34% female winners to the Pulitzer and 35% for the Man Booker.
To make matters worse, studies show that when women win these awards their novels are predominantly about a male character or told from a male perspective. Women writing about women is domestic, cosy, a narrow view on the world. It’s ‘chick-lit’. Those lady novelists still insist on writing their silly novels, I guess.
It is glaringly obvious that these statistics are not the result of a meritocratic system where the best authors are celebrated, unless you truly believe the only people capable of creating work of excellence are white men.
It simply means other authors are not being afforded the same opportunities. In her seminal essay ‘A Room of One’s Own’, Virginia Woolf speculated about the fate of Judith Shakespeare, the fictional sister of William, forced to watch her brother perfect his art while she is chastised by her parents for even daring to pick up a book.
The reader is left to imagine what Judith could have accomplished if she had been given the same permission as William to express her creativity, if she too had been allowed a room of her own in which to write.
Woolf writes that “Women have burnt like beacons in all the works of all the poets from the beginning of time... She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history... Some of the most inspired words and profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read, scarcely spell; and was the property of her husband.”
And so, I stand with the university students who want to decolonise their reading lists and I would urge all of you to do the same. The next time you go into a bookshop, why not make a conscious decision to buy a novel written by a woman or a person of colour rather than assuming that books lauded by the literary establishment must be inherently ‘better’?