Last spring, my English teacher asked my class of Lowers how many times we had heard or read stories similar to that of Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye.” She asked how many fiction books we had ever read that were not written by white men – how many books we had heard referred to as “classics” that were not written by that same demographic.
I was shocked to look back and realize that in my time at Andover, less than half of the literature I have been asked to read has been written by women and even fewer by people of color, especially women of color. My teacher’s questions resonated with me. This summer, I committed myself to excluding fiction books written by white men from my summer reading list. So began my months with Isabel Allende, Jhumpa Lahiri, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Ruth Ozeki, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and more.
In the last three months, I did not ride a train with Holden Caulfield, visit Gatsby in West Egg, nor cringe at Humbert Humbert. Instead, I encountered two tsunamis, learned about the Zen rituals that follow a death, mourned the death of a girl with green hair, discovered ice, and visited Lagos – twice. Much of what I read was unfamiliar, varying in almost every facet from the books often regarded as “classics” in the United States.
I stepped out of the homogenous fictional world of privileged, white males that I have been encouraged to inhabit for most of my life and was exposed to a multitude of new cultures, countries, political systems and histories. In diversifying the identities of the authors I read, I diversified the perspectives I encountered and learned much more about the differences between people than I would have had I continued to read the most “seminal” works. As Catherine Tousignant, Instructor in English, would say, in my pursuit of eliminating the familiar, I realized that indeed “the world is wide.”
By pushing past the conventional limits of the Western canon, I learned important truths that would have eluded me had I stayed in the familiar. I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me” and had to face the harsh realities of being black in the United States. I read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “We Should All Be Feminists” and recognized the impact of intersectionality on her words, noticing that Adichie’s feminism differs largely from Sheryl Sandberg’s in “Lean In”.” My endeavor this summer forced me to ask myself questions about who decides what is worthy of acclaim. The answer: centuries of dead white men brought books like “Catcher in the Rye” and “Lolita” to the top.
All this is not to say that “The Great Gatsby” is not a fantastic book. Rather, I aim to point out that there are, indeed, other equally important books that are not always recognized because they do not follow the rules of white, male literature. My project this summer allowed me to resist the stories of privilege that have dominated literature. Allowing what is considered important to be defined by one group of people continues to devalue and ignore all other perspectives. Of course, no single summer or even lifetime would be long enough to absorb all the opinions, ideas and histories in the world. But still, in just a single summer of reading, my views on language and literature as a means of conveying culture and perspective have changed permanently. The epigraph by John Berger that begins Arundati Roy’s “The God of Small Things” states, “Never again will a single story be told as though it’s the only one.” After this summer, I will certainly never again believe that there could ever be only one.