creating our own canon

Good morning, good morning. There’s a train going through Oakland down the hill, singing it’s morning song through the intersections, and next, a helicopter shudders overhead. These are our early morning birds. Candles?  Check. Coffee and soy milk? Check. Still-fuzzy dream head? Definitely. Time to write, I suppose.

I’ve been thinking a lot about The Canon since going back to school for a degree in writing. You know about The Canon — The Western Canon, I mean, these authors and poets who have become the standard bearers for Great Writing. We know them by name: Dante. Homer. Shakespeare. Chaucer. Faulkner. Elliot. Dostoevsky. Dickens. Cervantes. Tolstoy. Joyce. Fitzgerald. Philip Roth. Henry James. Wallace Stegner. Orwell. Stendhal.Updike. Nabokov.

We know these names because we’ve been hearing about them for years, ever since junior high school, earlier. These are the authors our teachers love, and love to quote. These are the books we’re assigned to read for class, that we write book reports on. These are the books that are meant to teach us how to be good writers, even though (we know, though it’s never said out loud) we’ll never be as good–as great–as these writers are. We simply can’t even aspire to it, most of us, because we are not like these writers: maybe we are not white, maybe we are not male, and we maybe don’t expect to have “wives” (be they of any gender) who will take care of the house and raise the children and deal with bill collectors and cook meals and take care of everything other goddamn thing while we’re busy creating Great Art.

Who else is in The Canon? This would make a great writing prompt: We’d have a big piece of paper on the wall (extra-large sticky notes! my favorite!), and I’d ask for folks to shout out books or authors who belong in the canon, the writers we were told we ought to emulate, even though often nothing about their experience or writing resonated with us: Hemingway, Steinbeck, Yeats, Shelley, Keats, Browning, Hawthorne, Dafoe, Conrad, Milton, Thoreau. Who else would show up there?

There’ve been a few women allowed into The Canon: Jane Austen. Emily Dickenson. Virginia Woolf. Flannery O’Connor. Toni Morrison. Ursula le Guin. Doris Lessing. Margaret Atwood. (Well, maybe they’re not really of The Canon, per se, but they’ve been allowed some respect among the tastemakers and auditors of good writing over the last few decades.) Amazing writers, of course. No question. But do you see a common thread among most them?

Folks in my classes throw out references to these books and authors as though they’re a common language, as though we all understand references to their work. It’s assumed: Of course you’ve read the Great Works of Western Literature.

But the thing is: Mostly, I haven’t.

This would be the second part of the writing exercise: on a second giant sticky note, we’d write the books in our own canon — the books and authors that have fed us, that live on our bookshelf year after year and move after move, the books we pass on to friends, that we extoll the virtues of, the books we assume everyone in our community (which will shift for the different communities we inhabit) has read, or will read, or certainly ought to read. And then we’d write: about creating our own canon, or about one of those books or authors and what they’ve meant to us, as writers, as survivors, as whatever aspect of our identity the book connected with (women, folks of color, queer folks, working class folks, and so on).

My canon doesn’t look like the one held up as our Western standard bearer. When I had to withdraw from college at twenty-one in the early ’90s, a computer science major who’d had to leave her love of English and creative writing in the trash can back home, newly out to myself both as a queer woman and as an incest survivor, I had no interest in what the old white men (or old white women) had to say to me. They didn’t have anything to do with my life, or the kind of writer I wanted to be. My canon grew up from the books on friends’ bookshelves (especially my first girlfriend’s bookshelf), from the women authors mentioned in books about writing, books about feminism, books about incest recovery, in the new queer glossies, the authors I heard speak or named at the OutWrite LGBT Writer’s Conference — these were the books that built my understanding of what good writing could mean, could be, could do.

The names on my canon include: Alice Walker, Dorothy Allison, Chrystos, Pat Parker, Minnie Bruce Pratt, Cheryl Clarke, Jeannette Winterson, Olga Broumas, Pat Califia, Audre Lorde, Gloria Naylor, Alicia Ostriker, Angela Carter, Kathy Acker, Carol Queen, Tillie Olson, Joy Harjo, Sherman Alexie, Letta Neeley, Gloria Anzaldua, Cherrie Moraga, Sapphire, Essex Hemphill, Marlon Riggs, Sarah Schulman, Toni Cade Bambara, Yusef Komunyakaa, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Lucille Clifton, June Jordan, Nikki Giovanni, Nzotake Shange, Barbara Kingsolver, J.D. Salinger (I can’t help it), Rebecca Brown, William Gibson, Mary Gaitskill.

It’s grown to include Mary Oliver, Louise Erdrich, Haruki Murakami, Octavia Butler, Kin Addonizio, Linda Smukler, Nicky Finney, Danzy Senna, Lidia Yuknavitch, Tara Hardy, Jane Hirshfield, Leslie Marmon Silko, Patricia Smith, Naomi Shihab Nye, Li-Young Lee – and still growing.

These are the writers I want to emulate. These are the writers whose work still sends a shiver through me when I read their work. These are the writers whose names send a tingle down my spine. These are the writers I think everyone should read.

There are writers (I’m thinking of Rita Mae Brown in her in-other-ways-useful book about writing, Starting from Scratch) who’d say I don’t deserve to call myself a writer if I haven’t 1) learned Latin (and Greek, preferably), and 2) read the Great Books. I keep reminding myself, sitting in these grad school classes, that it’s all right if I go to my grave never having read Rabbit Run or Lolita or Heart of Darkness. There’s just too much amazing work out there, being developed by writers whose gender or sexuality or ethnicity would have kept them out of The Western Canon once upon a time (and still does, to a great extent) to spend my precious reading time wrestling with War & Peace. Let me wrestle with Beloved instead.

Who would show up in your personal canon? What books and writers do you love so much you want to share them with everyone you know? And how have you (or have you) slipped out from under the pressure of those High School Teacher’s hands on your shoulders, guiding you away from the authors you love toward The Classics?

Thank you for your belief in the books and writers that feed you, feed your communities, feed the people you love. And thank you for your words!

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