This piece was first written in June 2016 for a publication that ended up never getting produced. It’s been sitting in my drafts for a long time now, and I recently came across it again.
I am publishing it relatively unedited. As I get older, I come to love the person I am in all seasons in fuller and more tender ways. 2016 me was a real mood. The conversations I now have and hold continue to deepen and complicate but in publishing this piece as it was in the now, I want to remind myself that as with all kinds of knowledge, there’s always only more learning and reflecting to do.
I’ve also been in conversation lately with a lot of other graduate students and others who are working on and against curriculums for us and by us and my reading list continues to grow and grow and grow. I am always grateful for the people who come alongside with their brave living and share their abundance with me. So consider this post a bloom from a season of my life where I found myself standing on the edge of a field of wildflowers, overwhelmed by the scent of possibility, and humbled by the beauty I had not yet seen.
“And you, too, will do the like; you who with this book in your white hand will sink back among the cushions of your armchair, and say to yourself, ‘Perhaps this may amuse me.‘” Old Goriot, Balzac
This makes me think about my hand, which although relatively fair for a Southeast Asian, is definitely not a white hand. Then I think of all the nonwhite hands holding books, and all the nonwhite hands writing books, and I put Old Goriot away for a while.
Surely the triviality of the white hand in the text does not warrant my reaction! But it does. I am troubled.
The assumption of the white hand—and by extension a white reader— continues to plague literature.
This assumption has serious repercussions on who we expect literature to represent, and who we imagine literature is written for. This assumption leads to the isolation of the nonwhite reader, and normalizes a literary world full of white characters by keeping nonwhite representation under erasure.
I shy away from talking about my reading life in general. It’s too much work.
As a Chinese Southeast Asian graduate specializing in diasporic literatures, finding others in the community who understand, care or are working toward similar things in research is hard to come by. The intersectional contexts and political, historical frames that accompany any kind of conversation I undertake around decolonizing literature make it too tricky for a light social occasion, and too prickly for other relationships.
Systemic erasure of nonwhite writing is still the norm. POC writers, Indigenous writers and Black writers are pigeonholed into postcolonial reading lists and special classes, we are the minority, the alternative, the marginal.
At graduate school orientation, our new Masters cohort is introduced to different reading and study groups available within the English department. There are periods, themes and styles covered (short eighteenth AND long eighteenth century!!) but in the diverse offerings, nothing for the decolonizing English student.
No wonder there are so few nonwhite hands in the classroom.
As a kid, Enid Blyton tells me in a story that a nettle plant in a soft grip stings, but in a firm grip, will not hurt me. Decolonizing feels like walking through a nettle field and trying to pull everything out. It is the process of taking this stinging, painful problem into my hands with a bold ferocity.
But what happens if the nettle is so deeply rooted you eventually realize it’s connected to every other damn nettle in the field? How the hell do you pull something like that out?
I am learning to be the flowerFrom “My religion is language” Terra Incognito, Adebe DeRango-Adem
instead of the rake, learning to stop
maiming my own viscera,
speak easy never, uproot, repent,
When I think about decolonizing my book shelf, I think titles I pick out intentionally at bookstores; academics and the poets I actively follow; subject material and genres I favour; geographical locations these authors write from.
In my undergraduate studies, I try to circumvent the rigid rules of literary quotas that govern the classes we take as English students. To fulfill Canadian literature credits, I take Indigenous Literature. To fill British literature I take courses like 16th century feminist literature and postcolonial theory and literatures. I dig through course selections looking for deviations from the canon; I tread through Australian and New Zealand writing, African literatures, South Asian narratives.
This snowballs into a habit.
I start reading professor biographies, reading the Works Cited. I read epigraphs and dedications and thank yous, I follow up on footnotes.
This habit extends into the way I shop for new titles, the way I google recommended reading lists online, the types of literary events I go to, and the Twitter accounts I choose to follow.
My bookshelf swells with writers we might call peripheral: Queer Singaporean poets, Bilingual authors, Chinese comic artists, Taiwanese illustrator-poets, Non-white graphic novelists, Indigenous poets and writers, Asian theologians, local zinemakers, self-published Kickstarter collections.
I am told my research scope is “interesting”. Interesting maybe a stand-in for “rare”, “uncommon”, or “strange”.
I read a history unprecedented; a history burned; a history footnoted; a history of marginalia. This is decolonizing.
It always takes long to come to what you have to say, you have toFrom Land to Light On, Dionne Brand
sweep this stretch of land up around your feet and point to the
signs, pleat whole histories with pins in your mouth and guess
at the fall of words.
When I hear Yunior in Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, I start thinking about the way a story is told, and how the voice speaking is itself a story. I think about the histories invoked in narrative, and which ones are privileged over others.
Decolonizing is so hard is because it is about problematizing assumptions. Every time I make an assumption, try to form a bit of a canon for myself, or imagine a perfectly decolonized bookshelf, I am forced to look at the margins and at the space just beyond my knowledge frame.
Who am I missing out on?
Who do I leave out in my ignorance?
Who am I excluding in my privilege?
In this way, my bookshelf keeps spilling out of itself. I pull out nettles and discover more about how nettles grow into each other; I become familiar with their root patterns.
I am now moving past narrow academic-speak into literary space where readers who think and speak in other languages engage with literature.
I am now thinking about readers who have tried the canon and found it dry, who cannot bring themselves to read Austen or Steinback but might be interested in a slim volume of poems by Cyril Wong, or who might feel something new from a 幾米（Jimmy) translation of Rainer Maria Rilke.
I am now holding close people who checked out of English years ago because the only narratives that were offered were Shakespeare, Dickens, Hemingway and then, just to be safe, The Joy Luck Club.
I don’t shy away from these problems anymore from helplessness or isolation because these conversations are necessary, valuable and important.
I often still feel helpless, but less alone.
Decolonizing is limitless because part of the process is imagining it anew. Unsurprisingly, this is what I think literature is.
Two Final Thoughts
- We can only imagine anew when we recognize what we have in our veins and our heart and our hands.
- We can better imagine when we know who is imagining with us. We read their visions to life.