In the week in which it was revealed that many GCSE pupils never study a book by a black author, Bernardine Evaristo, the first black British author to win the Booker prize, has challenged “all those academics who value whiteness and maleness over other demographics”, saying they should feel ashamed.
In an excoriating speech for the New Statesman/Goldsmiths prize lecture, Evaristo slammed “all those academics who still refuse to engage with progressive conversations and reassess their reading lists”, saying that they were passing on their biases to the next generation of readers and thinkers.
“Perhaps these academics are simply lazy. Perhaps they can’t be bothered to do the research and aren’t curious about narratives beyond the parameters of their usual interests,” she said.
The largest exam board in the country, AQA, does not feature a single book by a black author among set texts for its GCSE English literature syllabus and has only two novels by non-white authors – Meera Syal’s Anita and Me and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.
The novelist, who jointly won the Booker last year for her novel Girl, Woman, Other, said she was speaking “for all the people who have not peopled all the novels published in our country; who are simply absent from them, or, especially in the not-so-distant past, who are presented as half-brained women to be objectified and fucked, cardboard cut-out working-class or queer stereotypes, criminals”.
Evaristo argued for “canons, plural” of literature “if we have to have them”, saying that those of the past were created by men who went to Oxford and Cambridge, studied in all-male colleges where they were taught about “novels by white men who wrote primarily about white male protagonists”, and went on to teach in private schools themselves.
“Even today, in academia, when we talk about literary history in the 20th century, there are those who are resistant to exploring beyond the traditional canons, who refuse to engage in the conversations that have been ongoing for decades, actually, and who refuse to teach anything but what they call ‘great novels’ – meaning novels by and about men, typically white – while denying the existence of an exclusionary culture that not just undervalues but ignores work by women, for example, or people of colour,” said Evaristo.
Books such as Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, Beloved by Toni Morrison and Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga should be included in any teaching on the 20th-century novel in English, she argued, asking: “How can these major texts not sit alongside other major texts in English from the 20th century?”
Evaristo also said that any creative writing teacher that provided students with a reading list filled with “white, male, heterosexual and middle-class characters, writers and storylines” should feel shame.
“Imagine the crushing message that is sent to students who are only presented with these books, from whom they will learn their craft?” she said. “How can academics present the writers of the future with such a limited palette of writers who are mostly white and writing whiteness?”
She took issue with the “certain kind of longform patriarch” who argues that the novel is dying, saying that, because they mainly read novels by and about people like them, they “have no idea that the novel is thriving because of the fresh perspectives and narratives infusing it with new ideas, stories, cultures, life”.
Evaristo said she hopes for a future literary landscape “with a wide range of totally inclusive novels”, because “a wider range of voices, cultures, perspectives can only enrich what already exists and will contribute to a more inclusive education system and a more egalitarian society”.