World Literature and Othering

As I mentioned in my post on The Kite Runner, I took a world literature class while working on a Master’s degree in English.  I was so excited for the class, and my background as an editor of a daily document about the worldwide security situation prepared me for knowing a little bit about the countries of the authors whom I would read.  We also had to create reports about those countries, and because I had already done that in my former job for most of the countries of the world, that report and presentation was delightful and seemingly easy.

We read a selection of short stories from different authors.  I don’t remember the specific titles and I no longer have them.  I think the professor gave us photocopies of them—not necessarily ethical.  But I do have some of the books from the course, and I wanted to highlight them today.

world lit titles No One Writes to the Colonel and Other Stories by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Our Sister Killjoy by Ama Ata Aidoo

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

Clear Light of Day by Anita Desai

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

House of Splendid Isolation by Edna O’Brien

These books introduced me to new authors, which I found to be the greatest benefit of having read them.  As I mentioned before, I was already familiar with Hosseini’s The Kite Runner.  I was also familiar with Lahiri.  I have read everything she has written so far, and I wait with anticipation for more.  She’s brilliant and, to me, captures the experience of being an American, an immigrant, and an “other.”

That’s what I really want to write about today, the idea of “othering.”  We all do it.  It’s more comfortable to find similarities with other people and ideas and to reject those that make us uncomfortable or that seem different and therefore scary.  We prefer to identify with the people and objects around us, and when we don’t identify easily, we turn away and retreat.  We make excuses for why those ideas or people aren’t worth our time, when in reality, the truth is that they are just different and we prefer to see them as “other.”

This “othering” is my biggest problem with something like a world literature course.  It automatically assumes that this literature is only good or valid because it is an amalgamation of all the cultures we usually ignore.  We don’t instead give it its own place in the canon or accept it as part of the canon at all.  We have British literature courses and American literature courses, but no Indian literature courses or Colombian literature courses.  They are different, so we group them all together into one big course called world literature and feel we have done our duty.

I know there are arguments for why this is reasonable.  Perhaps, you say, there isn’t much literature from these other countries, so we have to group them all together and call it good.  I would say that’s a narrow view of other countries and cultures and simply not true.  Perhaps, you say, that such literature probably isn’t as well written or as good as the Western authors we are accustomed to reading and celebrating.  I would say that it depends on your measure of “good” and that such thinking is a way of engaging in distancing ourselves from that which we perceive to be different.  There are so many reasons to justify our marginalization of “others” but all of it strikes me as wrong.

I guess I’ve been thinking about this for a while in relation to the current work I’m doing on my Ph.D.  In my field’s textbooks, inevitably, toward the end, there’s a section or chapter devoted to “women’s issues” or “multicultural” issues (sometimes both appear in the same chapter).  It is a nod to these groups or “others,” but that separate section automatically treats them as a footnote to what is “really” important in the field.  This tendency makes white, male ideas and contributions central and “normal” while just acknowledging other contributions, cultures, and genders.  These are recognized only in the sense that they are happening, but not that they are in any way “normal” or important or worthy of actual study and inclusion.  It has been bothering me, and many other scholars.  At a conference I attended in Las Vegas a few months ago, several presentations were devoted to this issue, many of them centered around textbooks in the field.

Anyway, I’ll stop blathering on about that now. I did enjoy the world literature class I took, but I take issue with the fact that there must be a world literature class.  Why can’t it all just be literature?

I guess here we could get into the organization of curriculum and genres, and some may ask, “How else will we organize classes or coursework?”  I don’t know.  I simply don’t know how to better organize or title courses and genres of literature.  But there must be some way of being more inclusive and less marginalizing.

This issue is illuminated in one of the books we read for the course, Our Sister Killjoy (1977) by Ama Ata Aidoo.  It is a dark novel that parodies Heart of Darkness (1899) by Joseph Conrad.  It recounts Sissie’s leaving Africa to visit the European continent, and she finds that the people there are objectionable to her.  It is a brilliant novel, one that turns ideas of colonialism, “othering,” and racism on their heads.  I highly recommend it, especially if you were forced to read Heart of Darkness in high school or college.  (It is one of my least favorite books, by the way.  I refer to it as “The Horror, The Horror.”)  I apologize if you are a Heart of Darkness fan.  I just can’t like it.

I’m sure this class and its readings could have been improved upon.  I found that my excitement for taking it waned after the first few weeks, for the literature was stimulating and enjoyable, but it wasn’t enough.  The class discussions were abysmal and dominated by a few loudmouths.  By the end, I couldn’t wait to leave the confines of that classroom and continue to discover great “world” literature on my own.

Looking back, I would add the work of Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.  I wrote about her novel Half of a Yellow Sun last year on my blog.

What “world literature” have you read?  What would you add to this course’s reading list?

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38 thoughts on “World Literature and Othering

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  1. Good point: there just should be “literature” courses and the readings should be culled from all parts of the world. But remember, the Canon does include Spanish, French, Russian, and many German writings. And I would recommend Narayan’s “The Guide” and anything by Kawabata. I am re-reading “Snow Country” by Kawabata now and it is beautifully written — and deals with universal themes, not just a reflection of Japanese culture in the early part of the twentieth century.

  2. The question I have is what classifies a novel, literature as of the “world?”
    Of the books you pictured I have only read Hosseini’s. The books that first popped into my head to match up with the idea of “world” literature that I see pictured, are books actually written by British authors. Zadie Smith, or Hanif Kureishi, for example. White Teeth (Smith) deals with otherness; as does The Black Album (Kureishi). But they are still British authors, if you will.

    A different perspective of “world” lit could be taken from my “Studies in the Novels” course; it was a survey of the novel over time beginning with Don Quixote (Cervantes) and ending with Love in the Time of Cholera (Márquez). Among other novels, we read:

    I Served the King of England, by Bohumil Hrabal (Czech)
    Madame Bovary, by Gustav Flaubert (French)
    Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy (Russian)
    The Trial, by Franz Kafka (German/Czech?)

    You get the idea…these novels could be called world lit, and yet they do not register, at least in my mind, or even in the class as “world” in the same way as Hosseini and company. Perhaps by “world” we are even classifying them as non-white? “Other” most certainly means racial “other.” Whereas Hrabal is certainly “world” lit, to me, an American reader. His novel simply appears in a course simply about novels.

    And perhaps that’s the point you are making. The academy is classifying a certain set of writers (read: racial others, non-white) in a group of “world” lit. Yet, there are different novels that are surely of the “world”—Russian, Czech, French—but that are written by a certain set of writers (read: white) so are just novels.
    What makes Don Quixote just a novel…but not multi-cultural? I guess is a good follow-up question.

    1. Yes, I think that is my point, or at least part of my objection to this classification. Your comment is fantastic and adds so many great thoughts to mine. Thanks for complicating the issue and bringing a new perspective.

  3. Great post! I have thought similar thoughts about “otherness in regards to why “women’s studies” was a whole separate academic “track” at university. Studies only women need to take? Studies of women? Studies that only women have done? What IS that all about? In any case, as a biologist, there was never any room in my schedule of requirements to take the un-required “women’s studies” classes. I wonder still, years later, if I’m somehow not a woman since I haven’t studied how to be one. Anyway… I also took a World Literature class as an undergrad and found it to be fascinating. Having grown up in a very very narrow worldview, it was truly a broadening experience for me that has informed my reading choices into adulthood. I now make efforts to seek these “other” points of view and find them to be so valuable. So, I understand the importance of this type of category and also the inherent flaws in the “otherness” of them.

    Titles I remember from that class are still easily recalled, and it’s been over a decade now: A Bend in the River, I forget the author’s name though. Fire On the Mountain by Anita Desai (SO good!) and I’ve since read her other work as well as On A Clear Day. The Palm Wine Drunkard by Amos Tutuola, who used the English language very differently than we’re used to using English, it is the language of colonization for him and his use of it is truly unique. And a gloriously heavy volume of Chinese poetry called Sunflower Splendor. The poetry in this volume is shatteringly beautiful and I credit the assignment of a handful of these poems with my now lifelong love of poetry.

    Thanks for posting this topic this morning. It’s given me energy for my day.

    1. Denise, I am so happy that you liked this post and that it energized you! And I love your questions about women’s studies. Why is it so separate? Shouldn’t information about both sexes be included in all courses? I’ll look into those titles you mentioned. Desai really is fantastic!

  4. Wonderful selection. I have read both Ama Ata Aidoo’s and Jhumpa Lahiri’s works. In fact, Our Sister Killjoy is one of my favorites. I am not sure if you’ve already read A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid, but if you haven’t you should too. It’s short yet speaks of volumes about similar topics as Aidoo did. It’s also one of my favorites. Oh, perhaps I should also add in Saman by Ayu Utami. Anyways, I’ll add some of those works on my never-ending to-read list!

  5. I completely get your point about lumping everything that doesn’t fit our idea of the “norm” together. But if it makes you feel any better, I’m quite sure that the reason we have separate categories for American Li and Brit Lit is because we go to English-speaking schools that follow English-speaking curriculum. It’s normal really. For example my boyfriend grew up in the French school system and loves literature, but really does not know many American or British authors. But it is really a shame that more literature from around the world is not taught in school!

    1. Ah, that’s a great perspective. I guess in my own ethnocentric way, I just assumed the rest of the world read what we were reading! There I go engaging in what I claimed to find so offensive. It really is hard to step outside of one’s self and one’s own context. Thanks for adding that to the conversation. 🙂

      1. Haha yes it is hard to be aware of your own context at times, it is so ingrained. It would be very interesting to hear some perspectives from other countries and the literature they studied. Now I’m curious!

  6. I look to books, especially well written novels, as an escape. I am a mental traveler most years. Even if the story is raw, the characters exposed, the plot dark and twisted, I learn about somewhere I may never go, through the eyes and mind of someone who has been there, whether through life or exceptional research. Some places I have been, but crave to read validation of my experiences whether it be labeled novel or biography.

    I appreciate what you have written here – “othering” likely explains why I, and perhaps my grad student book club enjoyed “The Kite Runner.” We were an eclectic mix of ages, nationalities, socioeconomic backgrounds, all having met in various classes at a med school but opting for professions in public health. We are a global community now, so our studies are global. We are taught on a global perspective. It didn’t occur to me that some disciplines were still being segmented, so I learned something today.

    I have many non-American authors I like, but to me, they are all just authors I enjoy and appreciate. (As long as they are translated into a language I can understand. 🙂 )

    1. Your book club sounds really delightful. I wish I could find one like that. I find that with an eclectic group like you described, it is easier to share different thoughts and opinions without judgment or quizzical looks. What neat experiences you have. Thanks for sharing them with me!

  7. I don’t agree with other countries not having many literature masterpieces because almost every country has its writers, just you need to learn the language to deepen into every country’s culture because everything is interconnected. I can even come up with examples like … Russian literature which is by far one of the most representative schools of literature alongside with the French, British, American, Spanish and Italian one. As I was saying one can’t really understand Tolstoy or Pushkin by reading their masterpieces in English, and this rule is to be applied to every country’s literature especially Indian and Colombian. That’s why you don’t have Indian literature classes in USA or any other nation’s literature but British and American.
    My two cents.

  8. Hi Emily – classifying Jhumpa Lahiri as ‘world lit’ is indeed odd as she is American and is writing about an immigrant experience which is also quintessentially American. Other notable world literature that I’d recommend to you seeing all the rest you’ve read: Haruki Murakami – this is what I’d consider a prime example of world lit – he is Japanese and writes in Japanese and we get to read the translation. Also Amitabh Ghosh – very talented and writes about India, Bengal in particular. Of course Salman Rushdie, did not see him on your list. And lastly, this is the latest book I just read and am completely blown away by Abraham Verghese’s ‘Cutting for Stone’ – in fact I was so moved I wrote a review, check it out. Thanks!

      1. I read “Midnight’s Children” and “The Satanic Verses,” both difficult brilliant well worth the time and effort. He just came out with a memoir I want to read about his experiences of being on a jihadist hit list.

    1. Haruki Murakami is my faveourite writer he has influenced me a lot. i am glad somebody elese still thinks like me.

  9. I think this is one of your most important posts. I took a postcolonial literature course and while I loved the course and what we read, the entire point of the class was talking about the “othering” that happens, even while we were “othering” at the same time. Every author we read was from former British colonies. I felt like we weren’t reading the selections for their innate value, but for how it can show the psychology of what it was like to be colonized. I do think that the postcolonial perspective is an important one and if I ever pursue a Master’s I would probably go that route, but I think that the thinkers and writers from Africa, the Caribbean and Ireland have their own intrinsic value. One thing that was nice is I read Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” with this lens and I think that was a fantastic way to read what has become one of my favorite books. But I also think in other contexts it would be good.

    The reality is the world is full of wonderful literature and it should get its own place in the canon, but we also have to be careful to not disregard the valuable literature that we have been reading. How do we find that balance?

    1. It’s true that such balance would really be impossible. I think the example of your class othering as they talked about the problems with othering is a good example. Even my own post can’t go without being biased in some way.

      I really want to read Joyce’s Portrait. I started it once, loved it, and then for some reason stopped. I think it was due at the library and I just never renewed it. Thanks for reminding me of it.

      1. I know this is probably heresy but I find “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” to be superior to “Ulysses.” I think it is more lyrical and beautiful. And it just touches me. I think it is profound.

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