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Questioning the Canon is a new feature in which I hope to bring to light lesser-known books about a certain issue, which can be read alongside or instead of infamous ‘classics’.
The canon is defined as ‘a body of writings especially approved by critics or anthologists and deemed suitable for academic study’, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms which is effortfully pulling me through the endless terminology of my literature degree!
“Canon: a body of writings especially approved by critics or anthologists and deemed suitable for academic study”
Essentially, you can think of the canon as equivalent to the Top 40 music charts. These songs are the most frequently listened to, but fans of obscure alternative groups have been questioning since the dawn of time – well, since the NOW CDs came out – whether they actually represent the best quality music. How often do you hear the phrase ‘that’s so mainstream’ used as a dismissal?
“You can think of the literary canon as equivalent to the Top 40 music charts!”
Recently the same phenomenon is taking place in literature. People are starting to discuss whether the authors we hold up as cultural icons – Shakespeare, Dickens, Wordsworth – should be accompanied by previously marginalised writers. Our idea of what constitutes ‘great literature’ is becoming broader.
This can only be a good thing, as it means more diversity and social representation in what we read!
It would be difficult to miss the current publishing trend for mythical retellings (including Ancient Greek myths), many of which are making bestseller lists and winning prestigious awards. I for one am loving this trend as retellings are one of my favourite genres!
However, it’s important to be aware of the racial implications surrounding the historical use of Ancient Greek culture. Often held up as the birthplace of ‘white Western civilisation’, the heritage of Ancient Greece was used to create harmful narratives of superiority. These narratives then serves as perverse justification for the barbaric practices of colonialism and enslavement.
In fact, much of Ancient Greek culture, including its mythology, was derived from Ancient Egypt and other Afroasiatic civilisations, but this rich tapestry of influences has subsequently been whitewashed.
With this context in mind, I thought I would highlight 3 books by black women writers who reclaim Greek mythology and use it to illustrate the harrowing experiences of enslavement and racism.
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
In The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison places various myths, such as those of Philomela and Oedipus, in the context of 1940s Ohio during the Depression. At the centre of these intersections of myth and reality is Pecola, a lonely and abused black girl yearning for the one thing she believes can save her – blue eyes…
The Darker Face of the Earth by Rita Dove
The Darker Face of the Earth is a play by Rita Dove, retelling the Oedipus myth from the perspective of enslaved people working a Southern plantation. In this powerful and unsettling retelling, Dove uses myth as a way of illustrating the darkest machinations of slave ownership.
Mother Love and Other Poems by Rita Dove
One for the poetry fans! In this rich collection, Rita Dove portrays the relationship between mother and daughter through the lens of the Demeter and Persephone myth, creating a complex and nuanced exploration of Black female selfhood.
You may also like Questioning the Canon: T.S. Eliot and Adrienne Rich
Have you read any of these books? What did you think? If you’d like to find out more about race and Ancient Greek mythology, feel free to drop a comment below – it’s my dissertation topic this year and I could literally talk about it for hours!