Ann Cox, MLS, Collection Development Librarian, Ingram Library Services
Readers, librarians, teachers, and booksellers across the country are taking a hard look right now at their personal reading habits and business practices that have centered for too long on a heterosexual, white perspective. While our industry works to publish and promote diverse stories and reevaluate the classics taught in schools and universities, one recent and welcome development has been the increase in diverse retellings of the literary canon in popular fiction. Retellings have long been fodder for classic authors like Jean Rhys and Angela Carter, but diverse retellings for adult readers is an exciting trend we can’t get enough of.
Although they’ve made a bigger splash in the YA world, diverse retellings of myths and fairy tales are on the rise for adults. Author Helen Oyeyemi often plays with Western fairy tales, reworking them to comment on race and gender. Boy, Snow, Bird, her breakout hit, tells Snow White from the experience of a white-passing Black family in 1950s Massachusetts. In S.L. Huang’s Burning Roses, Little Red Riding Hood is set in a fantastical version of China, along with several other recognizable fairy tales. The much-analyzed relationship between Achilles and Patroclus is overtly romantic in Madeline Miller’s bestselling The Song of Achilles. While myths and folklore from around the world would be a refreshing addition to this tradition, these authors have reclaimed well-known tales for everyone.
Books taught in English classes have long centered on Western literature, but writers are now reframing those texts at the literary core of our culture, often through the eyes of #ownvoices authors. The massively popular Mexican Gothic by Silvia Garcia-Moreno takes established tropes of Gothic literature and sets them in 1950s Mexico for spine-tingling horror with a twist. Ahmed Saadawi sets Frankenstein in Baghdad in the U.S.-occupied city as a man stitches together the body parts of corpses as representative of the many Iraqi dead. When the remade corpse disappears, the chaos and terror of war is personified in an unkillable monster. Claire O’Dell’s futuristic mystery A Study in Honor offers a feminist take on Holmes and Watson in which both characters are recast as Black women. Meanwhile, Shakespeare, perhaps the epitome of classic English literature, is also open for reinterpretation. In The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, David Wroblewski retells Hamlet from the perspective of a speech-impaired teen who is forced to leave his Wisconsin farm after tragedy strikes the family. It’s a classic coming-of-age tale with a not-so classic protagonist who opens up particular nuances to the story.
The work of perhaps no other author has seen more retellings than that of Jane Austen, and publishing is currently chockful of diverse new editions. Soniah Kamal’s Unmarriageable retells Pride and Prejudice in modern Pakistan, where, due to its culture, she retains the same class tensions and marriage-centric society as Austen’s Regency-era England. (In interviews, Kamal says that upon first reading Austen as a teenager, she was sure she was Pakistani!) Pride and Two Porters by Charlotte Greene casts Elizabeth and Darcy as two women falling in love over their craft-brewing businesses. Sansei and Sensibility by Karen Tei Yamashita collects literary short stories, several of which are based on the six Austen novels, to comment on the Japanese-American experience. Romance author Sonali Dev has launched a hit series surrounding an Indian-American family, all with food themes. In the latest, A Recipe for Persuasion, chef Ashna Raje teams up with her former love Rico Silva on a celebrity cooking competition. These and many other novels capture the universality of Austen’s stories that have made her a literary mainstay for 200 years.
Diverse retellings of the canon are a fresh take on well-known tales and celebrate the vast array of cultures and experiences that readers crave right now. You can find more titles like these on an expertly curated ipage list. It includes known bestsellers and smaller independent books, but all are sure to catch your patrons’ attention and give them a new (and needed) perspective on stories they thought they already knew.
Diverse Retellings of the Literary Canon