Reinventing the Canon: Diversifying Your Reading List

Brianna McNish,co-Editor-in-Chief

As undergraduate students, we are constantly engaging with the question of what exactly constitutes as “the canon.” Needless to say, the same titles rehashed and retaught in countless literature classes tends to be overwhelmingly, despairingly filled with older white men. Steinbeck, Dostoevsky, Tennyson–the list, especially the titles taught in literature survey courses, is listless. It wasn’t until a couple years ago that I realized the books I divulged in and enjoyed were a reflection of the same titles I was taught in my coursework. After appraising my bookshelf, I examined the titles I amassed over the years ranging from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby to J.D. Salinger’s Catcher and the Rye. I always found the central characters of these narratives difficult for me to relate to simply because they followed the adolescence or adult life of primarily white men, and even the presence of women in these narratives were middling at best. As a woman of color, these stories gave me no escapism; even if I liked these classic novels and admired them on a technical level, I went into these texts acutely aware I couldn’t connect to anything about these characters.

“The list, especially the titles taught in literature survey courses, is listless.”

It was then that I challenged myself to read books only by women of color for an entire year. And while I expected myself to fall back into the same homogeneous reading habits, I found that spending an entire year reading books by only women of color encouraged me to diversify my reading habits the following year. It not only forced me to reevaluate my own reading choices (as well as engaging with the implicit bias which comes with selecting these texts), but it steeped me in disappointment in myself, it left me questioning all the novels, short story collections, and poetry collections I neglected to read over the years and all the ways I would’ve benefitted from them.

I strongly encourage people to challenge themselves to create women-only or WOC-only reading lists simply because it is an incredible way to evaluate not only what you consider the canon but also the bias which informs your reading choices. In particular, I wanted to highlight three women writers of color worth your time (and your money):

Helen Oyeyemi

Author photo courtesy Manchul Kim. Book cover courtesy Riverhead Books

Before her latest “Hansel and Gretel” retelling Gingerbread (2019), Oyeyemi published several other fairy-tale retellings ranging from her “Bluebeard” retelling Mr. Fox (2011) to her “Snow White” retelling Boy, Snow, Bird (2015). What makes this writer worth your time is how much Oyeyemi dares to reinvent language. She is someone who plays with all the possibilities that exist in the narrative voice. Often times, her stories do not make sense. Nor are they meant to make sense, which is the strange, evocative beauty in them. She dares to play with structure in a way I have not seen executed as masterfully as other authors.

May-Lan Tan

Photo by Bettina Volke







Her debut short fiction collection, Things To Make and Break, was released in the U.S. last year to critical acclaim. The Berlin-based writer’s stories were previously appeared in Zoetrope: All Story, Spork, The Real Story, among others, many of which are also featured in her short fiction collection. What is incredible about Tan is her mediative, lyrical storytelling that captures the microscopic nature of the human condition. In Things to Make and Break, she spins together narratives that rely not only on breaking but also the necessity for renewal and transformation.

Azareen Van Der Oloomi

Image source: Otherppl with Brad Listi

Oloomi’s narratives are delightfully strange and surreal. Her debut, Fra Keeler (2012), nabbed her the prestigious Whiting Award in 2015, and her latest novel, Call Me Zebra (2018) offers another narrative with the same lucidity and avante garde beloved in her first novel. Revelations in Oloomi’s writing unravel slowly; everything about her writing style is so tightly crafted and designed so that everything slowly reveals itself by the third read.

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