This week we’ve published the findings of research conducted by Lit in Colour, a campaign run by Penguin Random House and The Runnymede Trust to make the teaching of English Literature more inclusive and representative of the myriad of different voices and narratives that make up Britain’s past and present. As part of this research we’ve interviewed hundreds of key education stakeholders, like teachers and exam boards, as well as young people to understand more about their experiences of teaching and learning English Literature.
Faced with the stark picture the findings reveal – that fewer than 1% of students study a writer of colour at GCSE – we are now turning our focus on what we can do to facilitate much-needed change in this area. At Penguin we are producing free teaching resources for a range of exceptional texts by writers of colour and will be donating over 50,000 books to schools across the country, as we know that teachers’ lack of time and budget constraints can be key barriers.
At the same time, we know this severe lack of representation is linked to a framework of wider systemic issues, and we cannot solve this alone. While many of these issues are rooted in society and our education system, there are some areas the publishing industry can directly influence. As well as investing in and promoting more writing by contemporary Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic writers, as an industry we need to do more to centre classics by authors of colour and drive consumer awareness of and access to these books.
Currently, the classic canon studied in secondary schools largely consists of 19th century and earlier white English writers, such as Austen, Dickens, Bronte and Shakespeare to name a few. While these brilliant writers have an important place on the curriculum, young people need to be introduced to different voices and perspectives too, broadening their understanding of what literature is.
As a subject, Literature can help in understanding why and how Britain is connected to so many other parts of the world. One of the key findings of the Lit in Colour research states that race and empire form an important part of knowledge about British literary heritage texts, but we only get part of that knowledge with the texts currently studied. By finding classics that not only present different perspectives on historical events, but that also have links to contemporary writing from authors of colour, the campaign plans to showcase the depth of knowledge that is available to young people. We also want to highlight the way authors can be writing about similar and interconnected issues but doing so using different forms and techniques.
Starting by selecting titles from Penguin’s Black Spine Classics as well as Penguin Modern Classics, and building out across genre and form, we aim to give young people a framework of choice and insightful tips on what to read and why. For example, if we choose the topic of Britain’s imperial relationship with India, we could start with The Home and The World by Rabindranath Tagore, one of India’s most famous writers. First published in 1916 and dealing with national independence movements in India in the face of British colonialism, it offers the reader alternate opinions on the different sides of the battle through its main characters. A text like this would then be paired with more contemporary writing such as Nikita Gill’s novel in verse, The Girl and The Goddess, published in 2020 by Ebury Press which gives us another entry point into the shared history between India and Britain, but this time through the legacy of partition. Gill’s use of poetry is punctuated with illustration further depicting the transition from girlhood to womanhood for her main character Paro.
Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, published by Harper Collins in 1993, deals with India’s post-independence, illustrating some of the conflict between Hindus and Muslims, in the wake of partition. The story, set in 1951, follows university student Lata and her mother’s journey to find a suitable boy for Lata to marry in an ever evolving post-colonial society. Another novel to add in here would be Shahida Rahman’s Lascar, published by Indigo Dreams Publishing in 2012. Set in the 1860s and inspired by Rahman’s family’s oral history, the story is about a paternal ancestor who was one of the early lascars (sailors from East India) to work aboard imperial British steamships of the 19th century.
It’s important to consider how classic texts continue to inform and shape what we think and talk about in present day. The writing of Sathnam Sanghera in his recent book Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain could be paired with The Home and The World too. Sanghera weaves historical facts and events, including some that Tagore would have been witness to being born in 1861, through his own families’ past experiences, giving us a full and detailed retelling of important parts of our history we don’t necessarily learn about unless we find out for ourselves.
By centring classics by writers of colour that are often overlooked, we have an opportunity to showcase how relevant the concepts and themes discussed in them are today. This mapping and linking of classic texts with contemporary texts that deal with similar and related themes is something all publishers and booksellers could do in their general marketing activities. Signposting like this is especially helpful to young readers looking for more than what they have currently been offered, and gives publishers the opportunity to think outside the box and look beyond what is solely in their own catalogues.
Dr Zaahida Nabagereka is the Lit in Colour programme manager at Penguin Random House UK, a lecturer and researcher in African Literature at SOAS university of London, and the co-founder of Afrikult, a literary organisation seeking to widen access to African literatures through interactive workshops at schools and festivals.