What about ethnicity?
In some cases, the characters’ ethnicities are clearly specified up front, however, in a wealth of literature, this assumption is down to us.
Do you ever pick up a book and think, ‘this character is (just) like me?’
Or have you spent hours, perhaps in classrooms, wondering why you are absent from the stories you read?
If, as Neil Gaiman says, books are ‘a uniquely portable form of magic’, then surely this magic should be for everyone? If we are inspired by the books we read, grow and take succour from the experiences of our protagonists, then should it not follow that our protagonists reflect the society in which we live?
Societies, arguably since the first figurative cave paintings, make meaning through shared stories. I teach English because I believe that the study of literature is the study of what it means to be human. Humans are not wrought from just one mould, we should embrace the multifarious joys of humanity – in the study of literature this means a diversity of voices, backgrounds, bodies, loves, loathings and lived experiences.
To be clear, if we only truly flew when we read characters similar to ourselves, then literature would become a futile exercise: half the joy is putting yourself into situations in which you may never find yourself, empathising with the hopes and dreams of those you could never hope to meet, across times and dimensions some of which are yet to come. I, for example, have never been a ‘very hungry caterpillar’, however this has not dimmed my enthusiasm for this epic tale. Nevertheless, if one never felt represented in any of the tales one read, never felt that magical moment: ‘Yes! You’ve put into words exactly how I feel right now!’ then one’s love for literature may never ignite.
Cards on the table: I am a lover of what is traditionally held as the ‘English literary canon’ and I believe that these great works of art - which have shaped the consciousness of our society over the years - must be a cornerstone of the curriculum. I am an English graduate, I adore Shakespeare and Dickens – his scathing yet mischievous commentary on society still rings true for me today. My wife – an English graduate – adores Shakespeare yet detests Dickens. Therefore already – before we consider how ‘General’ the G in GCSE must be – agreeing on what must be included or omitted in the stories of our society is as vexed an issue as even beginning to define what it means to be British (and must everyone in our classroom feel British?). Of course, each year thousands of new readers fall in love with these works: there is a reason that they continue to echo through the ages.
But surely, in a bastard language imbued with multicultural and international contributions, there is space for new voices, new experiences? The British Empire is a discussion in itself for a blog post entirely of its own – enter stage left Tanika Gupta’s The Empress – but our language and therefore our stories echo our experiences: in the UK that is inexorably intertwined with the world beyond our shores.
Whilst neither dismissing the (so-called) ‘classics’ nor refuting the benefits of common cultural capital, I truly believe that our students must have the opportunity to experience the widest, most diverse range of viewpoints.
As such, I was delighted by the addition of two new novels, two new plays and a new 'Belonging' poetry collection to the Pearson Edexcel GCSE English Literature text list. We live in an increasingly global society; these new texts bring a range of voices and contemporary issues to the fore. Arguably this collection does not go far enough - why must diversity start Post-1914, implying a division between the ‘great literature’ of ‘the canon’ and ‘contemporary great’? Again, canonical hegemony and socio-economic factors limiting the dissemination of historically diverse literature is a topic for yet another post…
Having fallen in love with Rushdie, Levy, Roy, Guèn, Al Aswany and Adichi over the years, I cannot wait to give the students at Bristol Free School an even greater flavour of the ways in which a diverse range of literature can feed our imaginations. However, the students and their reactions will be the real proof. It is my fondest hope that through a curriculum lauding both the ‘great’ literary heritage and diverse society of which we are a part, we can all feel a sense of 'Belonging'.
About the author
Joe Harris is Head of English at Bristol Free School, having previously taught in Mongolia, London and Reading.