Out with Orwell and in with Oyeyemi
The Sunday Times has reported that the department of basic education is scrapping Animal Farm, Lord of the Flies, The Crucible and Othello from its English literature canon. This literature will be replaced by local books. What good news. But how embarrassing that it has taken the ANC government so long to do this.
Like most South Africans, I read all those novels. “Four legs good, two legs better,” said the pigs in George Orwell’s prophetic tale of the world’s revolutionary movements, including our own.
From William Golding’s Piggy and those murderous excuses for friends we’ve wondered: Are humans innately evil?
But it wasn’t until I read Nervous Conditions by the Zimbabwean writer Tsitsi Dangarembga that I felt an awakening, a revolutionary stir and a connection from my soul to her mind about all the things I knew to be true, but could not articulate. It was through her and Mariama Ba’s So Long a Letter that I solidified my own ideas of feminism and self-actualisation that never settled through Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Brontë or George Eliot, all of whose books were set works in the canon of great literature while these African and female writers were on the fringe.
I say this knowing that this is an unfair reading of Austen and Brontë because I gave up on their books as soon as I started, but apart from Mrs Dalloway, I was getting impatient with English girls involved in dalliances with nonsense men.
I’m not saying that Western classics are not worthy works. Modern authors gather inspiration from a variety of sources, many of them pale and dead for centuries.
I’m saying that to teach a nation, especially one like ours that is on a revolutionary trajectory, context is important. These books should have long shifted to make way for African writers and contemporary thinkers in high school and university post-1994 curriculums.
George Orwell wrote Animal Farm during World War 2 as a cautionary tale to socialist governments. The Crucible was published in the 1950s and drew parallels between the McCarthy-era investigations of the time and the Salem witch trials of 1692.
What good are schoolbooks if they do not help you make sense of your world? I love Shakespeare and will duel anyone to the death who disputes his brilliance. But I credit the many contemporary female writers – some introduced in high school, others devoured later in life – for shaping my mind to become the woman I am.
Dangarembga’s book, published in 1998, helped me make sense of my world. Like her title character, I was living two lives – one at a private boarding school and another in Soweto – and in conflict with how the Western feminism ideals I was learning at school fitted into my life back home. I picked up Erika Jong’s Fear of Flying in my twenties by chance, and learnt about the “zipless f**k”, which confirmed my suspicions that the world was lying about women’s sexuality. Published in 1973, Jong scandalised the Western world by ripping apart sexual repression. Reading it in my twenties was such a sexual liberation.
That’s what books are for: to revolutionise minds and disturb the status quo. Post-1994 we should have been building on African thought, but we mistook hearing black kids speaking in Model C accents as progress. Colonial literature does have its uses. It helps us navigate academic and corporate structures, and gets the “You’re so well read and so well spoken; where did you go to school?” compliments that gain us favour. But it’s a double-edged sword because it has also made us complacent in upholding the systems it was our post-liberation duty to take down. And if the gathering of what I heard a bystander call the “newly conscious coconuts” who can only quote Biko is anything to go by, the generation after me has not fared better.
I declared 2015 my year of reading just books by black writers, mostly modern, from South Africa and the diaspora.
Bessie Head made me wonder why we have such low expectations of South African men. Helon Habila and Zukiswa Wanner made me ashamed of my fixation with black writing only if it was on colonial reckoning and racism.
Helen Oyeyemi was a mind-bender, a writer who would not be boxed in. There is so much depth and knowledge here.
I’m thrilled for the future generation and I have so much catching up to do.