Blog post

Decolonising the literary canon

In this blog, University of Derby postgraduate research student Kiran Singh discusses the creation of the University's Decolonisation and Literature Network, why it is important to decolonise the literary canon, and the value of hearing from different voices.

By Kiran Singh - 24 January 2019

The University of Derby is one of the first higher education institutions to have a decolonisation literature network, which aims to make students, staff and the wider community aware of the role of literature as a decolonising tool. The network promotes post-colonial literature with a view to celebrating the diversity of the city of Derby and the University.

Decolonisation, as a movement, has gained such momentum in recent years that it can no longer be ignored; in fact, Cambridge student Lola Olufemi made national headlines when she wrote an open letter to her college saying that their programme did not reflect world literatures - it was English literature, but from a strictly white perspective.

The aim of the University's network is not to dictate how to decolonise literature; instead, its purpose is to provide a platform for important conversations and questions to be heard. It endeavours to support this movement and asks, 'can literature decolonise?' - and if it can, as a vehicle of narrative, how does it do that, or attempt to do that?

Why decolonise?

Hearing from different voices enriches everybody's learning experiences. When you see something in a different way, you realise that there is another story to be told. Even at school, within GCSE History, colonialism is not studied as part of the curriculum, so all these different histories and perspectives can be lost.

Post-colonial translations allow us to revisit familiar texts and explore them in new ways. They decentre the English literary canon and effectively assert that the world does not revolve around it, translations celebrate that there are many different literatures around the world which are valuable in their own right.

A movement gathering momentum

People have always spoken about the need for decolonisation, but there is an increased momentum now. This may be to do with globalisation, as well as the way that social media allows people to make these arguments more accessible now and share them in different ways.

With the idea of decolonisation firmly in the public consciousness, universities have got to think about what their role in the debate is and how they will engage with it. At the University of Derby, a number of different initiatives form part of this movement: the library exhibitions showcasing post-colonial literature, for example, or planning lessons to take into schools. We have also worked with the race group to present a public exhibition that raises awareness of the contribution of South Asian soldiers in WW1, as they played such a significant role but this is often side-lined or forgotten.

The Decolonising the Curriculum programme, developed in conjunction with the University's Schools and Colleges Liaison Team, is the first initiative of its kind in England. The programme centres on students delivering one-hour lectures to A-Level students on how literature can be colonial and encourages them to view narratives from a different perspective.

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About the author

Kiran Singh
Postgraduate Research Student

Kiran's PhD research project is a comparative study of the Panjabi translations of Shakespeare’s plays. Her focus is post-colonialism, decolonisation, partition literature, and feminism.

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