Prologue: A Note on "World Literature"
Welcome to The Exploded View, a new blog that will feature essays on world literature, with an emphasis on literature in translation.
As I currently imagine them, these essays will not be reviews so much as “engagements.” My purpose here is thus not to make judgments about the merits of literary texts in order to recommend them (or not). Nor will most of the works I write about be hot off the press. To my mind, there are already enough review mills out there. By contrast, in this project I’m hoping to adopt a more open and imaginative essayistic style, one that encourages a form of critical thinking that privileges creativity and doesn’t confuse analysis with opinion. I’ll be figuring out just what that means as I go along.
The first two essays I plan to post will serve as a two-part introduction to the project, so here I want to offer something more like a prologue. And by prologue I really mean caveat.
As a scholar with an interest in world languages and translation but whose training focused on postcolonial studies, my relationship with so-called “world literature” is conflicted. The very notion of world literature is beset by numerous problems, both conceptual and pragmatic. What is world literature? Which texts count as world-literary material? And who decides what counts? These are extremely complex questions. Publishers, of course, bear much of the responsibility for deciding which books—both new and in translation—to publish. But to what extent are publishers’ decisions guided by the dictates of the global literary market, by what they imagine readers want to read? How much do prestigious international prizes like the Nobel Prize and the Man Booker Prize validate particular literary values in a way that that allows certain texts to travel across continents and languages? How do sedimented ideas about aesthetics, style, and the relationship between literature and politics exclude certain texts from global readerships?
I’ve addressed some of these questions in a recent essay that was published in the October 2016 issue of PMLA. I don’t want to belabor the finer points of the argument I made in that piece here. Suffice it to say that one of the problems inherent in the concept of world literature is the sense of singularity it conveys: a single world, a single literature. My feeling, by contrast, is that we need to be willing to pluralize. That is, I consider the vastly differentiated field of letters around the planet to be multiplicitous, what might better be termed “literatures of worlds.” This notion of plurality is something I’m trying to keep in mind as I move forward with this blog. Hence the title The Exploded View, at once fragmented and connected. More on this in my third post.
Of course, I too am limited in terms of my access to texts from around the world. I’m only able to read published works that I kind can find in or (can afford to) have shipped to my particular part of the world, the Pacific Northwest in the United States. I’m also limited by language. I can read English, German, French, and Swahili, but for any texts beyond those I must rely on translation. And to be sure, the vast majority of published work in all languages remains untranslated.
Nevertheless, I want to do what I can to seek out texts from places and languages that have a harder time entering that revered category of Weltliteratur. For this reason, you’ll see a lot of African literature here, both in European and African languages. Though African literature has certainly entered mainstream publishing in the United States and United Kingdom, most of this anglophone work is written by transnational writers who are spotlighting diasporic identity formation. I don’t mean to suggest that this is a bad thing, only that there is a vast field of African writing in French, Portuguese, and hundreds of African languages, most of which remains hidden from view for most anglophone readers.
But why Africa and not, say, the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, the indigenous Americas, or other formerly colonized (or indeed still-colonized) regions? The particular emphasis on Africa is at once an issue of personal interest and politics. I entered graduate school as an Africanist, and my scholarly perspective has been irreversibly shaped by what I’ve learned from studying African writing. Simply put, I love African literatures; they have taught me, a white guy from the American Midwest, to see the world differently, and for that I am forever grateful.
The political aspect of my emphasis on African literatures is closely linked to the personal. African peoples, to say nothing of what the late Professor Abiola Irele called “the African imagination,” remain shamefully underrepresented on the world stage, so much so that it still seems necessary to refer to a continent rather than to the 54 individual nations that comprise it. Africa is a vast and immensely complex universe unto itself, culturally rich and historically deep and absolutely deserving of more serious engagement than it typically gets, both within Africa and without. The impossible challenge of grasping Africa as a whole, and the consequent but unfortunate need to reduce it to a massive abstraction, is one of the things that distinguish this region from others in the world. The difficulty of comprehending modern Africa is, to me, the primary reason for laboring on in pursuit of a better understanding.
What I seek in The Exploded View is thus a shift of perspective. For myself, I very much look forward to engaging both with African texts and with a wide range of literature from around the world. This project provides me with an opportunity to maintain a consistent writing practice and to write pieces that are more “occasional” and essayistic than academic scholarship typically allows. And for my readers, I hope the literary peregrinations that follow will prove intriguing and inspire broader, ever more adventurous reading.