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.