Swansea University has responded to calls for the English literature curriculum to be “decolonised” by launching a new module focusing on “hyper-contemporary” works of fiction.
The module, which will focus on books longlisted each year for the International Dylan Thomas prize for writers under the age of 39, is the UK’s first course based on a contemporary book award. It follows demands from students at universities including Cambridge for courses to be “decolonised”, and more black and ethnic writers to be included in the canon instead of more white, male authors.
The call has been supported by a host of writers. “If literature is to have any point for young people, it must be to examine and dismantle the structures that maintain white power. The literary is also the political. If we open the canon, we also open our minds,” wrote Hanif Kureishi in the Guardian, while Arundhati Roy said that “for an English literature syllabus in Britain to entirely or at least radically ‘decolonise’ itself would be an ambitious enterprise. But an argument for there to be greater diversity in the canon of what is considered ‘great literature’ is surely unimpeachable.”
Swansea, which sponsors the prize, hopes the module help redress the balance of an English syllabus “which has often focused on long dead authors”. Instead, students will be able to meet the writers in person, with the 2019 English students studying longlisted fiction, poetry and drama by authors including Zimbabwean Novuyo Rosa Tshuma, African American Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, British-Sri Lankan Guy Gunaratne and British-Ghanaian Michael Donkor.
“We’ve had a full cohort come and sign up for the course. What they want to study isn’t stuffy white men from centuries ago,” said Swansea’s Nicholas Taylor-Collins, who described the new course as a landmark module for English literature. But he acknowledged that Swansea’s course is “still full” of long-dead white male writers: “If you want to talk about decolonising the canon, you need to know what the canon is – that is part of the discourse you have to go through, to work out why something isn’t, but should be, canonical. To do this, you need to look and and to know the canon.”
Taylor-Collins was clear that “without a shadow of a doubt we need to redress the balance” in what books are studied.
Students on the module will also be tutored by publishing professionals on subjects from marketing to prize sales, as part of the university’s DylanED programme, which is aimed at fostering creative writing among young people.The £30,000 Dylan Thomas prize goes to the best published literary work in the English language by an author aged 39 or under, in honour of the Welsh poet who died at the same age. This year’s longlist, announced last week and hailed as a “a starburst of young literary talent”, has a particularly international flavour.
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