January 26, 2022 - 5:30pm

Kate Clanchy is a writer, teacher, and editor. She has been a qualified and practising teacher since she was 22. Her writing includes three prize-winning collections of poetry, the Costa First Novel Prize-shortlisted Meeting the English, and the Orwell Prize-winning memoir Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me. 

Last summer, her work came under sustained criticism for its purportedly insensitive depictions of her students. Picador, her publisher until last week, did not come to her defence.

Instead, it was left to Clanchy’s students, whose poems were collected by her in England Poem from A School, to support her. In September, at least 20 of them wrote an open letter to The Bookseller, describing Clanchy’s “unequivocal care and support for us
 as poets and as people”. They said they wanted to push back against suggestions that they “may be victims in some capacity”.

Yesterday, she came to the UnHerd studio to discuss her experiences — of teaching, writing, and cancel culture —  for the first time.

She explained how the campaign against her began when people accused her of “exocitising and commodifiying” her immigrants students after she published an anthology of their poems. From there, Clanchy felt a campaign building against her. Following the publication of her memoir — for which she won the Orwell Prize — she was accused of being “racist and ablest”, even though she was trying to celebrate her student’s differing cultures:

We’ve got huge — especially in the last 20 years in the south of England — quite amazing numbers of very recent migrants from Europe and from every continent of the globe, presenting. With their appearance and with their nationality, they want two things: they want to fit in and be accepted. But they also want their differences to be acknowledged. And every encounter is a dance between those things as it is between every human being.
- Kate Clanchy, UnHerd

On the effect of being forbidden to celebrate these differences:

Deadening, I suppose. It’s completely different from the real world. And this argument on Twitter won’t stop young people relating to each other and remaking English and changing the world. It’s got nothing to do with that, really.
- Kate Clanchy, UnHerd

How her pupils felt:

My students were upset. It’s very upsetting to have disgrace poured on something that you’ve been deeply involved in, of course.
- Kate Clanchy, UnHerd

On the cancellation feeding frenzy:

People were caricaturing every single thing I’d done. There wasn’t anything I could do about it. And they were saying that I was some of the things that I most fundamentally hate. […] They were all the worst things that I could possibly imagine, to have my words disordered and turned upside down. And to have my books thrown away.
- Kate Clanchy, UnHerd

Did she inflame the blowback?

I did, absolutely. It was absolutely my fault. And I really wouldn’t want that to impact on anybody. But then it really went very huge…It was the three lines, really: Ashkenazi nose, chocolate skin. They misquoted, people constantly said Jewish nose, which is not something I ever wrote. Context was never there.
- Kate Clanchy, UnHerd

On the publisher’s ‘apology’:

They apologised for my racism. And they forgot that I was a live human being in charge of other live human beings. They forgot that I was a teacher. They forgot I was a human being altogether. I’ve never been so shocked in my life when I heard that apology go out. It went over my agent’s head, my head, my editor’s head. Anyone who’d read the book was put out of the room.
- Kate Clanchy, UnHerd

On the murky future of memoir writing:

I think anyone who’s writing a memoir should be very concerned, because what they said in the end was that they’re responsible for offence on the internet. And I don’t think publishing can be responsible for offence on the internet. You’ve got to be responsible for the portrayals of young people. Nobody has complained. That’s the test of a memoir.
- Kate Clanchy, UnHerd

On her expectations about the reception to this interview:

After this interview people will say, ‘she’s going for sympathy points, or she’s trying for the cancelled points,’ or things like that. […] But this is my actual life’s work – everything that I’ve always worked for, it has actually been taken away. It really does happen.
- Kate Clanchy, UnHerd