Over the past year, as with many of us, my Goodreads bookshelf (oxymoronic as that phrase is) has seen an increase in narratives which encourage us to decolonise our imperial understanding of history. We have been busy (re)educating ourselves and acting on this knowledge, not so as to prioritise one canon over another, but to recalibrate our fundamental understanding of the whitewashed curriculum we have all been exposed to. This recalibration isn’t just in terms of literary decolonisation, but also cultural and linguistic decolonisation. And whilst this has been a noticeable trend within the arts and cultures world and beyond, it’s important that this is not, in fact, understood as a trend, but as a veritable desire for change.
With that in mind, I hope that my recommendations can give you some ideas if you’re looking for some new material and, like me, you’re on a quest to decolonise what you’re reading. I’ve chosen a variety of genres, so hopefully there’s something for everyone!
Afropean by Johny Pitts
A memoir of Pitts’s journey across Europe’s Black diaspora, including in Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam and Stockholm, Afropean offers an urgent and unromanticised understanding of the metropolitan structures which have historically drowned out Black experiences. Through his cinematic depictions of Europe’s whitewashed cities, nourished by his experience as a photographer, Pitts recounts the belittling white gaze with unapologetic directness. Informative, but never dense, he deftly intertwines anecdotes with historical background, to create a fascinating account of the way that Black voices have consistently been seen as peripheral to the hegemony of whiteness, a word which Pitts observes has become synonymous with Europeanness. He proposes the ‘unhyphenated’ portmanteau, Afropean, as a way of understanding his identity within European space.
A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid
This autobiographical extended essay details Kincaid’s experiences of growing up in British-colonised Antigua. Through the gaze of the Western tourist, Kincaid denounces the way that tourism encourages the Western eye to exoticise Antigua, seeing it for its picturesque views, rather than for its brutal colonial past; a tendency which has been amplified by the halting of foreign travel during the pandemic. Kincaid makes some sobering observations about the realities of neo-colonialism in Antigua, which she explains through the fact that her narrative is written in English – the very language which oppressed her native archipelago in the first place. Kincaid draws our attention to the barbarity of colonialism, whereby colonised cultures are seen to be more uncivilized than the violent realities of the act of colonisation itself.
Lullaby by Leïla Slimani
A translation of the French original, entitled Chanson douce, Slimani, who recently became Emmanuel Macron’s Francophone Affairs Minister, has become something of an icon within the French-speaking world. This novel is simple yet sophisticated, coarse yet compelling. In a Camus-esque opening, Slimani informs the reader of the horrifying infanticide committed by a nanny within the bourgeois Parisian home.
Yet despite the climax being bathetically reduced by the decision not to delay it until the novel’s denouement, the narrative somehow never loses its thrust. And whilst we are never informed as to the nanny’s motivations for her diabolical act, Slimani draws attention to the existential loneliness of the nanny figure, who masquerades as the bourgeois mother during the day, yet whose role in society paradoxically renders her invisible. A subtle critique of the capitalist economy in which women are exploited through their reproductive role, Slimani’s novel gripped me from start to finish. There is good reason why the novel won the coveted Prix Goncourt in 2016.
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