The African Diaspora and the Canterbury Tales

Patience Agbabi reads The Refugee's Tale Screenshot, Youtube

Poet Patience Agbabi reads "The Refugee Tale"

Watch: Patience Agbabi reads "The Refugee's Tale"

Geoffrey Chaucer's “Canterbury Tales” are part of the literary canon. Working through the collection of 14th-century stories, written in Middle English, is practically a rite of passage for anyone studying literature.

Yet there are elements of the stories, and the man who wrote them, that have been largely ignored.

“There are so many centuries of scholarship on Chaucer, but there's so much that hasn't been discussed,” said Brandeis professor Dorothy Kim. “Now, many of those things are finally being considered thanks to people who haven't been let into that scholarly world.”

In Kim's course, “Chaucer’s 'Global and Refugee Canterbury Tales’" - being offered at Brandeis for the first time this semester - students examine voices and perspectives that have been long overlooked by the gatekeepers of literary scholarship. It is an English course that also qualifies toward African and African American studies, Medieval and Renaissance studies, and Women's, Gender, and Sexuality studies.

The course features revisions and adaptations of “The Canterbury Tales,” including works by black feminist writers, playwrights, and poets - including Patience Agbabi, featured in the video above - of the African diaspora in Jamaican patois, Nigerian pidgin, and the South London dialects of Brixton. The pieces are examined comparatively alongside sections of Chaucer’s tales.

The modern works often raise notions that aren’t typically part of coursework on Chaucer, or they have proved to be well ahead of their time. For example, Puerto Rican author Ana Vega wrote “Eye Openers” as a sort of re-telling of the Canterbury Tales that includes topics of sex, violence and rape culture. Chaucer was charged with rape in 1380, but it is a subject that has only become a part of the scholarly discussion of his work in the last decade, Kim said. Vega’s “Eye Openers” was published in 1994.

“Asking ‘How does adaptation think of as a way of critique?’ Opens up possibilities for the students,” Kim said. “It gives students a way to think about this early canon figure, who is considered this father of English literature and to think about the many voices who have had opinions and views of this material that haven't been heard. The interpretation of Chaucer is still being worked out."

Read more about Dorothy Kim in Brandeis Magazine.

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