Changing the Canon

fourth year nyia bolin

photo by daniyal tahir

photo by daniyal tahir

Atop my desk lay my well-worn and beloved copies of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and J.D Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. These are two of my favorite novels of all-time. I remember exactly how I felt the first time I read them. I delighted in Jay Gatsby’s grandiose antics to win Daisy’s affections, and I empathised with Holden Caulfield’s feelings of alienation as he meandered through the densely populated New York City. I adore the intriguing personalities of these characters, and the novelists who wrote them.

However, as I think about the many books that I’ve read throughout the years, I can’t help but think about how much these characters and their writers differ from myself. These authors didn’t look like me, and they definitely didn’t live the same life as me. In high school, I read works by William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Arthur Miller, Jean Paul Sartre, and Charles Dickens. While these books are significant to literature, I felt that they weren’t necessarily relevant to my life.

I appreciate that the literary canon is becoming much more inclusive. James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Amy Tan, Jhumpa Lahiri, Khaled Hosseini. These are just a handful of minority writers who have received accolades for their writing and who have proved that their writing is just as good as that of any classical writer. They bring up topics that may not have been relevant in Shakespeare’s era, such as police brutality, the immigration experience, and the war in Afghanistan. More and more, literature reflects the diversity of our society and our social issues. As our society shifts, so too, must literature. The changing literary canon proves that there is merit in stories written by marginalized peoples, and by sharing their stories, hopefully they’ll begin to break down the barriers that society has built around them.

Seeing my identity reflected in the characters and authors of bestselling novels gives me hope that someday I, too, can write novels that resonate with my readers. Representation in the literary canon not only gives readers a chance to broaden their perspective of the world, but it also allows them to know that their existence and story is worthy of being shared with others. Growing up, I devoured countless books, and while a great deal of them left a mark on me, it is the novels written by people like me that impacted me the most. Literature is meant to be a form of expression, yet it wasn’t until the literary canon became more inclusive that this art form was accessible and impactful to all.