Kate Clanchy has been a qualified teacher for 35 years. Picador published her first volume of poetry 21 years ago. But publisher and author have now parted company “by mutual agreement” (although it sounds more like “my partner divorced me and I agreed”).
The reason for such a move centres on the controversy about her latest book, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, in which she described her pupils in ways that one author said were “riddled with racist and ableist tropes”, such as “chocolate-coloured skin” and “almond-shaped eyes”.
By contrast, the actual students who were the subjects of the book talked in an open letter to The Bookseller magazine about Clanchy’s “unequivocal care and support for us… as poets and as people”. They said: “Kate’s presentation of the diversity and uniqueness in our workshops has its flaws and imperfections”, and added, “Everyone is on a journey, does good, makes mistakes, has to learn from them.” One young woman wrote in the Times: “I am that girl with the almond eyes. I did not find it offensive… ‘almond eyes’ is a term that I have often used in my own poems. My almond-shaped eyes are at the core of my Hazara identity.”
Do we learn from being punished? Or do we learn from tripping up and hearing how others respond to what we say and how we behave? Broadly negative behaviour and language falls into three categories: careless, thoughtless and malicious. The problem comes with the ambiguity inherent in the first two: carelessness and thoughtlessness – when intention and effect don’t match. What has happened in the Clanchy situation is that phrases that belong in the thoughtless category have been moved into the malicious.
Intention matters. It’s the difference in law between murder and manslaughter. It’s not an excuse but it has to be heard alongside the feelings of hurt or offence.
The flaw in the critics’ position, in direct contrast to the young people Clanchy actually taught, is that they have taken it on themselves, in this case by imputing racism to Clanchy, to define the “crime” and mete out punishment: she was guilty as charged. Cue social media takedown, pressure on the publishers and public humiliation in the court of only the section of public opinion that agrees with them.
The damage is caused, in this case, to publishing – but also to offices and factories across the country, where, as a diversity practitioner, I encounter managers and colleagues daily walking on eggshells lest they fall foul of rules they are unsure about and in which they have no part. If we cannot disagree without shouting “bigot!” at each other, we will learn less about each other, be less able to understand each other – and crucially, make less progress in rooting out true discrimination through understanding. At the moment, there is one less inspired teacher and mentor with a platform to promote young voices of colour. Is that really what we want?