Modern Classic Predictions
By Megan Powell, Hannah Spruce and Serena Kerrigan-Noble
Over here on the Classics team, we have been discussing inspiring Black authors whose work has, too often, been elided from a canon of predominantly white, male authors. Among the pillars of classic literature but not limited to, are Ralph Ellison, Alice Walker and Maya Angelou. These authors have made an indelible impact on the canon, exposing the deep-seated prejudices entrenched within society. At the same time, these authors sought to make visible those marginalised experiences.
Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga
Firstly, we would like to highlight one of our favourite classic authors to set the precedent of our selection process for our modern classic predictions. Tsitsi Dangarembga’s 1988 debut novel, Nervous Conditions follows the journey of Tambu, who is unexpectedly granted the opportunity of an education by her uncle and subsequent adaptation to a Western mentality. Dangarembga was the first Black woman from Zimbabwe to have a book published in English and thirty years later was included in the BBC’s top 100 books which changed the world. The book explores the isolation and internal struggle of this cultural shift, as Tambu feels detached from her native tongue and her familial practices. Tambu’s mother laments about her lost child due to the radical change in her identity while Tambu feels embarrassed and unfamiliar in her homestead. The book explores the impact of class and gender and the lost potential and hopelessness that the women share despite their differing backgrounds. The people in the novel are striving to achieve the white ideal and must sacrifice their cultural practices and language to conform. The novel explores the inherent limitations of the assimilation within these patriarchal and western societies, as a sense of equality and fairness is never attained. It is a novel which highlights the necessity of emancipation, isolation and selfishness to survive within such pervasive structures.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
Our second prediction is American author, Brit Bennett. Bennett’s novel The Vanishing Half (2020) may be set in the late 1960s and 70s, but it contains an important message, which remains pertinent today. This striking novel explores collective trauma, cultural erasure, and the racial inequality which continues to pervade America. The plot follows two African American sisters. One sister can pass as white and, in doing so, avoid the prejudice her sister faces. Bennett shows how such impunity constitutes a form of culture erasure and painful severance from one’s past and heritage. Bennett demonstrates that such performative whiteness is as much a prison as an escape from the brutality of racial prejudice; this kind of “passing,” Bennett reminds us, is “both an act of self-creation and also an act of self-destruction.”
Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson
This concern with “passing” on histories, trauma, and heritage is a central concern of Charmaine Wilkerson’s stunningly evocative novel, Black Cake (2022). The titular black cake which siblings Byron and Benny inherit after the death of their mother comes to represent the entanglement of memories and secrets. This intergenerational story, traversing time and place, is as layered and complex as the cake which is at the centre of this book. As the lives of Benny and Byron, and the afterlives of their mother’s legacy, intersect, the reader is confronted with the irrevocability of past decisions, which threaten to unsettle the present. However, this is also a story about endurance and survival, as characters come to reassess and reconstruct their identities.
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo
Bernadine Evaristo is already shaping the literature scene, so it is no surprise she features on our list. Evaristo will undoubtedly become a significant figure for upcoming modern classics with her 2019 novel Girl, Woman, Other winning The Booker Prize alongside Atwood, making her the first Black woman to achieve this prestigious award, and rightly so. Girl, Woman, Other is remarkable in recounting the lives of twelve characters as they tell their story. The novel focuses on themes of sexuality, racism, feminism, and politics, to just name a few. Each issue is carefully expressed to captivate the reader and present intersectionality to explore the experiences of the women. The characters vary in personality, social situation, and experience but are woven together to formulate an imperative read.
The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has taken the literary world by storm and is already critically acclaimed with her inspiring works. The Thing Around Your Neck was published in 2009 and is a collection of short stories that depict central themes of oppression, cultural differences, and the effect of colonialism. Each story is stunningly told to poetically explore imperative themes which will certainly solidify Adichie as a modern classic.