Inclusivity: Expanding the Canon

How A Writer’s Craft Can be a (more) Anti-Racist Textbook, Part 5

Chapter 4 of Felicia Rose Chavez’s The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop talks about how Chavez moved from being taught with the standard literature anthologies when she was in college, reading the assigned white writers from library copies in old editions or photocopying assignments because she couldn’t buy the book, to creating her own photocopied course packets so she could include writers of color, to a digital anthology, and finally to an anthology of texts by contemporary writers suggested by her students to give them agency in selecting their influences.

The need to do this, to reexamine not only who we present as the models of good writing (to include or even focus primarily on non-white-male writers), is something I’ve acknowledged for some time. I have always attempted to make my world literature surveys truly multicultural classes that pay more than lip-service to non-western writers, and anthologies are also starting to be much more representative, so that’s easier to do. In my senior English Capstone class, the issue of canon formation is often key, and in poetry literature classes, I try to talk about and question the narrative created by my own selection of poets. In creative writing classes, I have always gravitated towards multicultural anthologies: I suggest the Puschart Prize anthology because their selections tend to be pretty diverse, or I suggest working with literary magazines to choose readings for A Writer’s Craft.

As I’ve said in my first post of this series, the book was designed without a reader as a conscious cost-saving choice that also lets each instructor select the readings they want to include. Similarly, in writing about craft, I avoided giving many examples and encourage instructors to bring in their own, acknowledging that a textbook is a starting point, not the final say on the craft of writing. I encourage instructors (and students) to engage in a dialogue with the book, to disagree at times, and to find their own examples.

Yet reading Chavez, esp. in Chapter 4, does make me think about the examples that I do use in the book. Looking over the index for the names of writers I’ve actually mentioned, I see a decent representation of gender, though there are still more male writers, and a decent international representation, though they are still primarily European. Many prominent white American writers are not mentioned by name, but many prominent African American, Latinx, or Asian American writers (and others) are also left out.

If there ever is a second edition of A Writer’s Craft, something that is not even in the pre-planning stage, what would improve it the most would probably be more examples, and if there are more examples, then I would want to conscientiously select examples from writers of color: both American and international writers. Most of the examples I cite are writers writing about their craft, not examples from their written works, so it might take some research to find statements I would want to include, though there are several I can think of that I’m surprised I didn’t include initially, since I often have used them in class. I’m thinking of Salman Rushdie, for instance, whose essay “Imaginary Homelands” problematizes truth in fiction as well as the reliability of the narrator and cultural assumptions about place. Chinua Achebe has written eloquently on colonialism and fiction, and I would certainly want to include some of the thinking of Toni Morrison, Langston Hughes, Amiri Baraka, and many others.

The De-Canon website is an excellent source of books, essays, online resources, etc. about craft by writers of color. Another excellent resource is the reading list at Creative Writing Studies, which has one list devoted to diversity and inclusion. These will be great resources to draw from as I add to my notes and ultimately plan for an updated edition.

One chapter from A Writer’s Craft that could use this treatement besides the chapters on genre is the chapter on “Perspective,” where I primarily cover camera angle and point of view. What could be added to this chapter is a discussion of cultural bias. This is something that we all implicitly have, but is also something we can be more aware of both in our own writing and in workshopping the writing of others. The idea of different perspectives could even be introduced in the early chapters “The Writer in the World” and “Past Worlds,” where we could examine what we notice about our world and what we find important from our unique cultural perspectives, and we could ask the question when writing about history: whose history and why is it important. Some of these questions are already implied in the current edition of A Writer’s Craft, but in a second edition, they could be more explicit, especially if more examples from a more diverse selection of writers were included.

I don’t know if I’m quite convinced to have my students select their own readings, though. I think that depends a lot on the students in your classes. I could do it in a graduate class, and maybe in an advanced undergraduate class, but most of my intro students have a very limited reading experience, especially when it comes to contemporary writers. They need to be exposed to writers and kinds of writing they’ve never heard of, which is why I try to use literary magazines or recent and representative anthologies in my classes. To keep costs down, online literary magazines are great, and they also give students ideas about places where they can submit their own work.

I also often include an assignment to review a magazine or to select a poet or writer and find more of their work through our library or online, and then to write a response or a book review. This kind of assignment gives students agency, while also allowing me to expose them to things they normally wouldn’t choose. Using contemporary writers allows me to treat them not as “masters” that have to be emulated, but rather as liberating examples of modes of writing that challenge some norms and follow others, as license to experiment, as examples that the content of creative writing can be current, relevant, political or apolitical (yet still political), etc. Students need to be shown there are many ways to write successfully. They need models, but they don’t need “masters.”

In a second edition of A Writer’s Craft (if that ever happens, and now I’ve raised the possibility, so maybe it will), I would keep the format that there is no anthology of readings and keep the suggestion to work with recent literary magazines.

In the meantime, I would urge myself and other instructors who want to teach in a more anti-racist way to bring in our own examples of different perspectives, to raise the question of “whose world?” or “whose history?” when we talk about the early chapters, and to encourage students to answer “my world” and “my past” as well as to consider the answer, biases, loves, hates, anxieties of others. These questions can be embedded in some of the writing exercises, and I can add more in A Writer’s Craft Community, as can other members by commenting in that topic. A Writer’s Craft is meant as a starting point for discussion, and I encourage you to add your perspective and respond to the perspectives of the writers in your classes.

Published by Kendall Dunkelberg

I am a poet, translator, and professor of literature and creative writing at Mississippi University for Women, where I direct the Low-Res MFA in Creative Writing, the undergraduate concentration in creative writing, and the Eudora Welty Writers' Symposium. I have published three books of poetry, Barrier Island Suite, Time Capsules, and Landscapes and Architectures, as well as a collection of translations of the Belgian poet Paul Snoek, Hercules, Richelieu, and Nostradamus. I live in Columbus with my wife, Kim Whitehead; son, Aidan; and dog, Aleida.

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