I’ve just ordered a copy of Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me. And now I am no doubt 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.
Accused of racist stereotypes
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.
A horrible mess
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 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.
A huge loss
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, for whom this epithet is ‘at the core of her Hazara identity’ and one she uses in her own poems: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/i-do-have-almond-shaped-eyes-my-teacher-kate-clanchy-described-me-beautifully-vtwp50b06 The Sunday Times, 15th August 2021).
Freedom under threat
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?