chapter  39
18 Pages

The Canon/Canonicity

When I first asked my students to critique the anglophone Caribbean literary canon, I faced a room of quizzical expressions. My students reminded me that a struggle had been waged in our department and across the nation to open the curriculum to writers of colour and to courses on empire, gender, race and sexuality. As guardians of this newly expanded curriculum, they were puzzled as to how a literary tradition known for its ideological critique of the British literary canon could itself be subject to critique? The danger of the former British and US literary canons, they asserted, had not been merely a question of financial capital and institutional privilege. True, writers, especially third world writers, needed money and canonical books made money for their authors because they were required in schools and universities. They earned authors prestige as the winners of literary awards and the subject of scholarship, but the real problem, they informed me, was that scholars and institutions had treated British and American canonical literature as embodiments of the essence and core virtues of the national culture and identity. Didn’t I remember George Lamming’s vivid description of the colonizing power of the British canon? Taught in colonial schools and tested on civil service exams, the canon instilled ‘England’s supremacy in taste and judgment’ – and the corresponding inferiority of all its colonized subjects (Lamming 1960: 27, 47). A few young scholars smugly asserted, the whole discipline of British literature was developed to create a curriculum in nineteenth-century India, with the purpose of colonizing the collective mind of the subcontinent – not to mention the fact that it was introduced into English higher education for women and the working class, in order to foster national unity and morality among the less privileged while the male elite was still reading Greek and Latin at Oxbridge (Viswanathan 1989; Eagleton 1983: 23-4). Afro-and Indo-Caribbean writers, who wrote in Britain, the United States and Canada, had been marginalized in those national literary traditions, and the Caribbean literary tradition had only gained a place in the ivory tower with the

acceptance of African Diaspora and postcolonial studies. How, they asked, could the anglophone Caribbean have its own tradition of literary exclusion?