How the wrong language can destroy an author: Griselda Heppel makes a plea against cancellation.

I have just ordered a copy of Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me. I fear that my open admission of this is enough to render me the target of social media hatred.

Until very recently, Kate Clanchy had a solid gold reputation as an extraordinarily gifted English teacher, particularly in the area of creative writing and particularly among young people from a wide variety of ethnic groups and disadvantaged backgrounds. Her pupils flourished under her inspiring tutelage, writing poems of an originality and sophistication way beyond their years, and many have since gone on to successful careers as poets as adults. In this memoir, Clanchy looks back on 30 years of a job she clearly loved and excelled in, writing with such power and conviction that the book won the 2020 Orwell Prize for Political Writing.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, things went wrong. Badly wrong. A scathing review of the book on Goodreads attracted other negative attacks. Clanchy was accused of using racist stereotypes (‘chocolate coloured’, ‘almond-shaped eyes’) to describe children from different ethnic backgrounds, of not disguising individuals enough and therefore not protecting them, of blatant profiteering by writing this memoir on the backs of the pupils she taught, just to make money etc etc The furore seemed to come out of nowhere and felt hard to credit; if these criticisms were well-founded, how on earth did Clanchy’s publishers miss them, let alone the judges of the Orwell prize? It looked as if the reviews were prompted by malice from people for some reason out to destroy the author. 

And that was where the author herself made a big mistake. She called for help on Twitter, denying she had used any of the terms she was accused of, eliciting much sympathy… until pages of the book started appearing online, scattered with all the epithets her critics so deplored. She was caught, fair and square, in a mess far more horrible than if she’d owned up straight away. Grovelling apologies, from both Clanchy and Picador, her publishers, combined with a promise to rewrite future editions to remove the offending areas, have not satisfied the huge swathes of the morally outraged, and it looks quite possible to me that the terrified publishers will simply let a prize-winning, best-selling and – judging by the hundreds of 5 star reviews – moving and inspiring book go out of print. 

Hazara girl
Image by Shamsheri,
CC BY-SA 4.0 <>,
via Wikimedia Commons
Which is why I’ve just ordered a copy while I still can. Whatever its defects – bearing in mind how sensitivity to inappropriate language has heightened in the last couple of years – the overall tenor of Clanchy’s memoir seems, from all the glowing reviews, overwhelmingly celebratory and supportive of the young people who enliven its pages. To cancel this account of their personal and literary achievements would be a huge loss both for them and for us. 

If you doubt this, just look at the way some of Clanchy’s former pupils have rallied to her support, in particular ‘almond-eyed’ Shukria Rezaei, a member of the Hazara people of Afghanistan, who, as a minority ethnic group, are a target for persecution by the Taliban. 'My almond-shaped eyes,' says Rezaei, ‘are at the core of my Hazara identity.... It is a term that I have often used in my own poems ' (My favourite teacher Kate described me beautifully, The Sunday Times, 15th August 2021). 

Is this what we want?
I still can’t make out why Clanchy denied she’d written the phrases she was attacked for, instead of arguing that some, at least, (like ‘almond-shaped eyes’ above) have a long poetic tradition in the particular culture she applied it to. Better to have done that than deny what could – and was – so easily proved against her. 

But I am keen to read the book myself and make up my own mind  – a freedom that looks increasingly under threat as publishers find themselves under pressure to withdraw controversial books. 

 Is that what we really want? 


Peter Leyland said…
Thank you so much for posting this Griselda. When I first read about her book in the Observer Review two years ago I was really impressed with what she had done. She published the book to acclaim and started posting copies of the poems on Twitter from time to time which I followed and 'liked', making occasional positive comments. Then suddenly out of nowhere it seemed a number of people started attacking her on Twitter for being racist. Phillip Pullman replied in her defence and the whole thing got horribly ugly and she had to make an abject apology and promise to rewrite the book, 'learning from her mistakes'.

I have looked at the extracts highlighted in the criticism (like you I have not read the book myself) but they do not look particularly racist to me. In 'Girl, Woman, Other Bernadine Evaristo' writes fictionally about how Winsome tried hard not to stare at Lennox's 'chocolatey skin that was so lickable'. I pointed this out on Twitter but of course no reply. I wouldn't mind being called 'Liverpool Pete' as like 'African John' (criticised) it's where I am from.

She and her publishers probably did handle it badly but I do feel immensely sorry for what has happened. If anyone wants to know about racism they need look no further than the current drama about Stephen Lawrence on ITV.

So thanks again and apologies for the rant.
Sandra Horn said…
Thank you for this, Griselda - I loved the book and her work with the kids made my heart sing! She was obviously an inspirational teacher. If 'almond eyes' is a racial stereotype, gawd 'elp us! What next? Are we now not allowed to describe anyone's distinctiveness? I think she made a grave mistake in her denials, but I can understand the panic she might have felt, leading to a bad decision. Listen to her students, you people - what are THEY saying?
Jan Needle said…
Well said, Griselda. Thanks.
Bob Newman said…
I believe I saw an article by Lionel Shriver on this very issue in the Times a few weeks ago, though unfortunately I didn't keep it.
As I recall, she had established that the objection to "almond-shaped eyes" and "chocolate-coloured skin" was the food references, which are now being taken to imply that that the writer wants to _eat_ the previously enslaved ethnic people. This is of course highly objectionable. Expressions such as "strawberry blonde" and "peaches and cream complexion", which would tend to be applied to people with paler skins, are not subject to this criticism.
The whole thing is simultaneously ludicrous and terrifying. I'm not sure I want to be published any more.
Reb MacRath said…
This is an important post on a situation that is-as Bob Newman wrote--both ludicrous and terrifying.
Rhiannon said…
amazing books around, do we really need to “make up our own mind” about one that many respected and educated people have identified as flawed?
Griselda Heppel said…
Thank you all for these great comments. I haven't read 'Girl, Woman, Other' but I'm fascinated that Evaristo uses exactly the metaphor objected to in Clanchy's book (not a rant at all, Peter, you made good points). I suppose the argument is that just because a person of colour uses these images, it doesn't give permission to white writers to do the same? Maybe... but one could be forgiven for not knowing that.

My mother sometimes describes a particularly gorgeous baby/toddler as 'eatable'. Doesn't means she wants to eat him/her! We often use food images in writing to denote something lovely and attractive. I'm sure it never occurred to Homer to actually drink the 'wine-dark sea'.

Writing is more and more a minefield. Bob, you have a point when you say you don't want to be published anymore.
Wendy H. Jones said…
Thank you for highlighting this. It is such a fine balancing act these days.

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