Book review, Deirdre Osborne, Greenfinch, Joan Anim-Addo, Kadija Sesay George, Non-fiction

‘This is the Canon: Decolonize Your Bookshelf in 50 Books’ by Joan Anim-Addo, Deirdre Osborne & Kadija Sesay George

Non-fiction – paperback; Greenfinch; 352 pages; 2022.

I love a good book list so no surprise that This is the Canon: Decolonize Your Bookshelf in 50 Books would appeal to me with its curated list of 50 fiction titles from around the world.

The authors — Joan Anim-Addo, Deirdre Osborne and Kadija Sesay George — are all esteemed academics who have made a living out of championing writers from diverse backgrounds.

Among a string of accolades and accomplishments, Professor Joan Anim-Addo, who was born in Grenada, co-founded the MA in Black British Writing at Goldsmiths, University of London, with Deirdre Osborne in 2014; Osborne, who is Australian-born, is Reader in English Literature and Drama in the Theatre and Performance Department at Goldsmiths and the editor of the 2016 Cambridge Companion to British Black and Asian Literature (1945-2010); and Dr Kadija Sesay George, a literary activist of Sierra Leonean descent, is a literary project manager and former publisher of SABLE LitMag, a magazine for emerging writers of colour.

Together they have curated a list designed to:

centralize fiction produced by writers of African descent, Asian descent and Indigenous Peoples, to offer a corrective to reverse the pre-eminence of white-dominant literary canons.

The list is sandwiched between an engaging introduction that introduces this non-white canon and argues the need for it (highlighting also, some of the pitfalls associated with generating any kind of list) and an afterword that encourages readers to be proactive in their reading choices and to become “reader activists”.

50 books

Each book on the list is accompanied by a thoughtful review (of around three pages in length), a paragraph on its publishing history, author biography and a helpful list of further reading suggestions aka “if you like this, try…” For example, if you like Tony Birch’s The White Girl, one of two books on the list by Indigenous Australians, it recommends reading Sally Morgan’s My Place (1997), Kim Scott’s Benang: From the Heart (1999), Claire G Colman’s Terra Nullius (2017) and Leah Purcell’s The Drover’s Wife (2016).

The list, arranged in chronological order, is as follows (hyperlinks take you to reviews of books I have previously read):

  1. Love in a Fallen City and Other Stories by Eileen Chang (1943)
  2. All About H. Hatterr: A Gesture by G V Desani (1948)
  3. Thousand Cranes by Yasunari Kawabata (1952)
  4. The Lost Steps by Alejo Carpentier (1953)
  5. The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon (1956)
  6. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (1958)
  7. Children of the New World: A Novel of the Algerian War by Assia Diebar (1962)
  8. Wide Sargasso by Sea Jean Rhys (1966)
  9. A Grain of Wheat by Ngügi wa Thiongo (1967)
  10. The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born by Ayi Kwei Armah (1968)
  11. The Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwarz-Bart (1972)
  12. A Question of Power by Bessie Head (1974)
  13. If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin (1974)
  14. Between Two Worlds by Miriam Tiali (1975)
  15. Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El Saadawi (1975)
  16. Our Sister Killjoy: Or Reflections from a Black-eyed Squint by Ama Ata Aidoo (1977)
  17. Territory of Light by Yako Tsushima (1979)
  18. Kindred by Octavia E. Butler (1979)
  19. The Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta (1979)
  20. So Long a Letter by Mariama Ba (1980)
  21. The Color Purple by Alice Walker (1982)
  22. Segu by Maryse Condé (1984)
  23. Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid (1985)
  24. Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987)
  25. Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga (1988)
  26. Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories by Sandra Cisneros (1991)
  27. Texaco by Patrick Chamoiseau (1992)
  28. Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat (1994)
  29. Discerner of Hearts and Other Stories by Olive Senior (1995)
  30. Salt by Earl Lovelace (1996)
  31. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (1997)
  32. Trumpet by Jackie Kay (1998)
  33. The Years with Laura Diaz by Carlos Fuentes (1999)
  34. The Best of Albert Wendt’s Short Stories by Albert Wendt (1999)
  35. Monkey Beach by Eden Robinson (2000)
  36. The Emperor’s Babe: A Novel by Bernardine Evaristo (2001)
  37. Dogside Story by Patricia Grace (2001)
  38. Shell Shaker by LeAnne Howe (2001)
  39. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini (2003)
  40. Small Island by Andrea Levy (2004)
  41. Dancing in the Dark by Caryl Phillips (2005)
  42. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2006)
  43. The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga (2008)
  44. In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin (2009)
  45. How to Read the Air by Dinaw Mengestu (2010)
  46. NW by Zadie Smith (2012)
  47. The Swan Book by Alexis Wright (2013)
  48. A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James (2014)
  49. The Sellout by Paul Beatty (2015)
  50. The White Girl by Tony Birch (2019)

Literary activism

The Afterword is especially interesting, for having read it I realise that I am a “literary activist” and a “reader activist” and didn’t even know it! If you are reading this blog, maintaining your own blog or reading books written by people of diverse backgrounds, you fall into these categories too.

It defines literary activism as:

the full range of work involved in the creation, production and promotion of literature and books.

It also then flags “reader activism”, which “can help influence the shape of the contemporary fiction landscape” by supporting

writers and their books by talking about them, recommending them and by voting with your wallet. […] This can make a real difference to opening up the literary world. It is an effective way to make publishers sit up and take notice of what readers want and it supports authors financially.

It outlines some practical steps you can take, which I’ve summarised as follows:

  • visit your local library
  • join a reading group
  • support independent publishers and bookshops
  • buy literary magazines and experience new writers
  • donate to writing prizes
  • attend literary festivals and events

This is the Canon: Decolonize Your Bookshelf in 50 Books is a terrific reference book. Not only will it proudly sit alongside Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (my go-to literary reference book of choice), I will be using it to help shape my reading life moving forward. Watch this space.

24 thoughts on “‘This is the Canon: Decolonize Your Bookshelf in 50 Books’ by Joan Anim-Addo, Deirdre Osborne & Kadija Sesay George”

  1. Love a list too Kimbofo. Of those, I’ve read 6, 8, 13 (no, saw the film!), 21, 31, 40, 42 and 50. One could point to what’s not included, but with only 50 they can’t all be there so I’m not going there!

    I like that we are literary and reader activists. One of the things I recommended to my reading group a few years ago was that we read a First Nations Australian author in July every year and that seems to have become an accepted tradition now, about which I’m thrilled. Overall we do try to read other authors like, most recently, Bernadine Evaristo, and Tsitsi Dangarembga. It’s important to expand our minds and experiences and my group is very open to this. We read the Chinua Achebe, too, a few years ago.

    But there are many books in the list I don’t know at all!


    1. There’s a few on here that I read pre-blog and several authors named where I’ve read other books by them but not the one chosen here … and although the official list is 50, if I counted up every book recommended/mentioned in the text it would be more than 150! It’s a great resource.

      I love that your reading group reads something by a First Nations writer every July – that’s a good habit/tradition to establish and maintain.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. An excellent initiative, I appreciate the existence of these well curated lists and have read 18 from this list and quite a few already in my shelves, but plenty more to discover.
    The reason I’ve read a few (apart from an intention to read from many different countries) is in part thanks to the existence of Margaret Busby’s first collection Daughter’s of Africa and there is a second volume now, and following online publications like Brittle Paper.

    There’ll always be many more to discover and many not listed, but it’s those that we don’t know of, we can be curious about.

    Great post Kim, thanks for bringing this to our attention.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, I’m impressed you have read so many! I’ve read 8 from this list. A lot of titles I have never even heard of, a few on my TBR already and several authors I’m familiar with but read different titles to the one named here.


  3. What a great post. From this list, I’ve only read 9 so far, but over the last few years I’ve been making a conscious effort to widen my reading horizons, and it is getting much easier to source books to fulfil this ambition. I’ll definitely look this book out.


    1. That’s one more than me, Margaret. Once upon a time I existed on a sole diet of US fiction but began to branch out and get out of my comfort zone, helped in part by creating this blog and following other bloggers, but I still reckon there’s more I can do to read widely. I have read very few novels from Africa and South America, for instance, but I’ve made some headway in reading Asian writers (Japan, China, Korea etc) and really enjoy books from that part of the world.


  4. I’m pleased to see that I’ve read 15 of these and have two on the TBR, plus there are authors there who I’ve read, just not that particular book, e.g. Caryl Philips, Patricia Grace, Carlos Fuentes and Ngügi wa Thiongo. But like Sue, I see authors I’ve never heard of.
    Alexis Wright’s new novel Praiseworthy arrived today. Don’t hold your breath, it’s 723 pages long…


    1. Yea, I’ve read Yasunari Kawabata, Nawal El Saadawi, Octavia E Butler, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Eden Robinson but not the particular novel mentioned on the list.

      Lucky you getting the new Alexis Wright… I saw that on Instagram and thought it looked interesting… I have to buy her novels on Kindle though, cos the text size in the print editions is far too small for my terrible eyes to read!


      1. LOL When they asked if I’d like Septology — and that was 700+ — I asked them about the font size because with my eyes…
        For me, it’s the weight and awkwardness of holding a chunkster That wrist I broke…
        (Ha! See what I’ve just done? I haven’t edited it, I’m not going to, but I’ve absorbed Henry Green’s style of not finishing sentences, because I know you could finish them for me. He just wouldn’t have used the ellipsis.)

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Quite pleased to see I’ve read 19 of these—though already plotting a project around reading more of them! What a great list, and sounds like a great book, too.


    1. That’s impressive! I feel I wasted my 20s reading stuff by white men, mostly from the US and UK, because that’s what was available and what we all thought at the time was the good stuff. 🙄


      1. Sometimes the white guys can bring it! I’ve been lucky, I think, in that the canon wars largley happened before I got to uni and then the increased focus on reading diversely has been growing and growing since I graduated—so it’s been increasingly easy to find and read great authors of colour.


        1. Agreed. There are some wonderful books written by white men, but when you’re told anything not written by that cohort is inferior it limits our choices and our ability to experience, as readers, diverse stories from around the world. I’m so pleased things are changing. And I’m envious of younger readers who have so many opportunities to read widely, more widely than I could, though I suspect there’s still a long way to go, which is kind of the whole point of this book: forcing us to think about what we read and why we read it.

          Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve read 6 from this list, and have a few more on my shelves. I like being a literary and reading activist – something I’ve long espoused – but more so in recent years when I’ve turned from US literature largely towards translated lit – I should add some more world lit


    1. I’m envious of younger readers who have such an amazing choice of diverse reads in front of them instead of the monotone books I had that all came from the same places in the world. How much richer we all are when we can read books written by people of all different backgrounds, right? Switching from US to translations is such a great way to open up your reading experiences. I’ve done something similar but feel like I haven’t read enough from Africa or STH America.


  7. I’ve read some of them, and in my defence would read more if Perth’s (audiobook) libraries weren’t 99% white crime and romance.
    Can I say, with the authors, you must read The Swan Book, probably the best Australian book ever, and much more interesting and authentic than The Kite Runner for instance (a very American choice).


    1. Yes, I have the Swan Book on my Kindle because the paper edition I bought years ago (and have since donated to charity) had such a tiny text size my poor eyes could not cope!
      I was actually surprised the Kite Runner made this list, to be honest, as it was one of those books that got so much hype when it was released I took against it. But now I’m wondering if I was simply being snobby 🤷🏻‍♀️


      1. Kite Runner: I’ve looked up what I wrote (in 2015) and I actually read ‘And the Mountains Echoed’ which I thought was ok but ignored much of the ongoing conflict. I agree with you about hype, but now I probably should read it too.


        1. I’ve looked up the essay in this book about The Kite Runner and they claim it “challenges our conscience regarding refugees and asks the question about our individual responses on the issue of human rights”. It also points out that it was number one on the New York bestseller list for two YEARS!


  8. What a great list! I’ve read 14 of these, half-read another (The Lost Steps) and have read a different book by Nawal El Saadawi. There are also a couple lurking on my shelf written by listed authors. I’ve been ‘reading round the world’ for many years, but I haven’t necessarily been very good about recording my thoughts on my blog or Goodreads, so I’m not as much of an activist as I could be.


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