Isabel Waidner makes some bold claims in her introduction to Liberating the Canon, ‘Liberating the Canon: Intersectionality and Innovation in Literature’ (you can read it here, and I wholly recommend that you do – it’s a manifesto for literature in our times), all of which are fully realised in the anthology’s project. The broad (and specific) aim of the anthology is to counter the exclusion of marginalised voices from UK avant-garde aesthetics. As Waidner argues: ‘Bringing together intersectionality and literary innovation, Liberating the Canon is designed as an intervention against the normativity of literary publishing contexts and the institution “Innovative Literature” as such’ (7). This is accomplished not only by showcasing work from traditionally marginalised writers at the intersections of sociopolitical identities such as BAME, LGBTQI, woman, working class, but also by very deliberately working across formal distinctions and disciplines to ‘unrepress’ the “multiplicity of writing” (Raymond Williams, 1977). Waidner argues, in a deeply visceral rallying cry for innovative literature at the intersections, that, ‘in order to ensure that this kind of work can be written and published, what counts as literary innovation has got to change’ (10). Liberating the Canon is at the forefront of that making that change happen in the UK.
‘Bringing together intersectionality and literary innovation, Liberating the Canon is designed as an intervention against the normativity of literary publishing contexts and the institution “Innovative Literature” as such’
Although most of the contributions to this anthology are written in experimental/poetic/cross-genre prose, many of the contributors – such as Nisha Ramayya, Steven J. Fowler, Timothy Thornton and Eley Williams – are also/better known for their poetry, reflecting the way the canon must be liberated from the constraints associated with a strict division between forms and genres/genders. Mojisola Adebayo’s contribution is a multi-form play exploring female genital mutilation, which incorporates West African griot style storytelling, projected animation film and music as well as dialogue, monologue and poetry to reject and overcome the ‘duel of dualisms … / Repeated the world over’ (46). Nat Raha’s poetry from ‘£/€xtinctions’ collages language in a visual/visceral cut-and-paste style materialising the body’s broken contours, its torn edges, its unintentional and violent collisions/caresses.
Prose forms merge and blend, with many stories blurring any discernible distinction between fiction and non-fiction. Isabel Waidner writes from life – with a style that demonstrates language knows no boundary between experience and imagination, and which includes quotations from her reading of both philosophy and popular culture. In ‘Deep Desert’, Jess Arndt shows that language has the capacity to disorientate as well as to illuminate. The writing in this piece veers between times and locations, dreams and actualities, never settling and never allowing the reader to settle into easy assimilation. Timothy Thornton blends magic spells, popular mythology and a spoof academic style in his contributions from ‘Birds, Magic, and Counting’, while in ‘Ragged Sigils’ the lyric/autobiographical ‘I’ surfaces to both foreground and question the act of writing.
What I find most exciting about this anthology are the numerous and various ways that consciousness of the act of writing frequently breaks the surface to make me aware of the constructedness of language use, only to submerge itself again in a memory or dream, or take flight in imagination that carries me along for sentences, paragraphs, or pages, in a rush of bewildering sensation like an itch that can’t be scratched. Liberating the canon by injecting an awareness of the constructedness of language leads one to ask questions about the constructedness of the canon itself. Whose constructions are we reading, and what purposes do they serve? Nisha Ramayya foregrounds these questions in the procedural construction of ‘Fainting Away’, which responds to colonial and postcolonial experiences of being British-Indian by adopting the structure of a nineteenth century lexicographer’s classifications for the Sanskrit word smaradaśā, translated as ‘love-state’ – raising implicit questions around categorisation, classification, construction and cultural appropriation.
Fiction pieces such as Eley Williams ‘The Flood and the Keeper’, Rosie Šnajdr’s ‘Bingo the Drunkman’ and Steven J. Fowler’s ‘The Bassment Gallery’ also pique our awareness of the language used in their construction in various ways. Williams’ character-driven story chooses the deliberately understated use of the gender-neutral pronoun ‘they’ in referring to the story’s protagonist, ‘the child’, as well as producing a linguistic flood that raises questions about writing, grammar and who is language’s ‘keeper’. Fowler’s ‘Bassment Gallery’ includes minor unedited typos and errors, shifting the meaning, multiplying the possibilities and subtly unsettling the fiction of language’s fixity. Šnajdr’s potent shot of explosive linguistic liquor is a flash fiction complete with its own list of ‘Errata’, yielding more and more each time it is returned to. Language is foregrounded in this piece, but it is certainly not at the expense of meaning.
Jay Bernard plays with the visual conventions of a written text, creating a reading experience that’s unsettling and disorientating, which some may find a challenge to read. Reproducing the feeling of seasickness that can accompany certain reading difficulties such as dyslexia, again the reader is invited to experience the alienation and discomfort suffered by so many who find themselves excluded from the literary canon. In ‘Supermarket Revelations’, Seabright D. Mortimer explores language as an environment and its relationship with the body:
‘If language is an environment, that must mean words have a physicality and belong to an ecology. Speech is a psycho-physical act that is ‘produced by the body’. It is a physical process, one intrinsic to our sense of self, our relationship with gender, and it dictates how our bodies move around in the world. Verbal language, the product of bodied speech, does not have to shore up existing de facto systems and ecologies. It can be used to resist and underwrite them. Language is a weird material crying to be punched I say.’ (176).
Mortimer’s argument that language ‘can be used to resist and underwrite’ the existing systems serves as a kind of coda to the anthology’s project. It’s a project that every contributing writer is writing at the forefront of, a project ebulliently outlined by Waidner in her Introduction, and a project often made possible by the growing number of innovative small presses in the UK and Ireland.
In her introduction, Waidner recognizes the work of the UK small presses in creating an environment of resistance to the existing publishing system. She writes:
‘As part of the wider digital disruption of UK publishing (driven by journals including 3:AM, Berfrois, Gorse, Minor Literature[s] and Queen Mob’s Teahouse), independent publishers like Dostoyevsky Wannabe, And Other Stories, Book Works, Dead Ink, Dodo Ink, Galley Beggar, Influx Press, or Tilted Axis are drastically changing what and whose work is being published, and as a result, what work is being written, by who’ (17).
Liberating the Canon makes this disruption visible; it gives voice and shape to its project, bringing together writers at the intersections of sociopolitical marginalization and literary innovation; and it bellows a rallying cry that can no longer be ignored. This is a vital anthology of literature at the intersections, full of great writing that’s ‘doing exactly the kind of literary work that needs doing now’ (Waidner, 19).
Click here to buy Liberating the Canon (ed. Isabel Waidner) from Dostoyevsky Wannabe.
About the Publisher:
‘Dostoyevsky Wannabe work with a nonprofit publishing ethos, that is, they sell their books via Amazon at cost price in order to make them affordable to as broad a readership as possible. Publishers, designer, editor and authors are working for free, and mostly without institutional support. The aim is to produce books that challenge literary conventions, and to precipitate the ongoing disruption of the British publishing establishment’ (quoted from the Introduction to Liberating the Canon).
Review by Sally-Shakti Willow
Sally-Shakti Willow researches and writes utopian poetics at the University of Westminster, where she is also a visiting lecturer in English Literature and Creative Writing. Her writing has been published by Adjacent Pineapple, Eyewear, The Projectionist’s Playground and Zarf. The Unfinished Dream, a collaborative chapbook with visual artist Joe Evans, was published by Sad Press in 2016. She is the research assistant for The Contemporary Small Press project, and is on the judging panel for the Republic of Consciousness Prize.