By Courtney Suciu
Writer Ann Morgan considered herself well-read, but when she took another look at the books lining her shelves and filling her e-reader, she had an epiphany: Nearly all the titles in her collection were written by British and North American authors. Hardly any of the them had been translated from other languages.
She wondered what extraordinary works of literature – and remarkable insights – had she missed with such limited exposure to international voices?
Determined to broaden her literary horizons, Morgan dedicated a whole year to reading books by authors from 196 countries. She documented her journey with a blog, A Year of Reading Around the World, which became a book, The World Between Two Covers: Reading the Globe. Her experiences also inspired a TED Talk1 where she revealed the challenges and illumination gleaned from her exposure to international voices.
“Books have extraordinary power to take you out of yourself,” Morgan told the audience, “and into someone’s else’s mindset so that for a while at least you look at the world through different eyes.”
That can be an uncomfortable experience, particularly if you are reading a book from a culture that has values quite different from your own. But it can also be really enlightening. Wrestling with unfamiliar ideas can clarify your own thinking. And it can show blind spots in the way you might have been looking at the world.
A Q&A with award-winning British-Libyan writer Hisham Matar The Guardian website2 reminded us of Morgan’s words. Like Morgan, Matar pointed out the negligible number of works in translation that are published each year in the U.S. and Britain (1.5% and 3% respectively, according to Matar).
“This impoverishes the culture and nourishes narcissism,” he warned. “Put very simply, it is boring and dangerous.”
Matar’s words might seem a titch harsh and hyperbolic. Dangerous? But consider this: As the internet has given us unprecedented opportunities to seek out the thoughts and experiences of different people around the world, how often do we take advantage of this technology only to gravitate toward media that affirms and validates our own thoughts and experiences?
What are the consequences of cloistering ourselves this way? Hasn’t such intellectual isolation proven dangerous?
Could access to more diverse and inclusive literature be a potential remedy?
Earlier this spring, Pulitzer Prize-winning Vietnamese-American author Viet Thanh Nguyen penned a provocative essay in The Washington Post3 where he also made the case for more exposing ourselves to a wider variety of international voices.
He recalled as a Ph.D. candidate in the early ‘90s being discouraged from writing his dissertation on Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American literature. Apparently, there just wasn’t a demand for such a niche area of literary expertise. This led Nguyen to conclude that:
We, in the minority, would always have to know the minds of the majority, a favor the majority knew it did not have to return. Knowledge of this kind meant survival for the minority. Ignorance of this kind was an expression of privilege for the majority.
Now a professor of English at the University of Southern California, Nguyen wrote that he’s been thinking about his experience recently as “the decades-long war over what to include in the canon rages on.” According to Nguyen, even as students increasingly demand a more inclusive curriculum, many institutions remain committed to teaching English in alignment with Western literary tradition. Their syllabi continue to focus exclusively on the likes of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Austen and Tennyson and, Nguyen says, there seems to be a fear that incorporating more international writers will leave no room for such classics.
Nguyen compels us to consider what it means to teach and study English with the emergence of prominent writers who are immigrants and descendants of immigrants. They may write in English, but their perspectives challenge cultural values and beliefs that are informed by canonical literature. They provide alternative viewpoints on topics like colonialism, imperialism and slavery. But shouldn’t they also be a part of the English curriculum?
And what about writers whose works have been translated into English from other languages? These marginalized authors, often omitted from reading lists, can contribute layers of perspective, context and meaning that have long been left out of Western literary discourse. Such voices are necessary for a more complete, robust understanding not only of traditional English literature, but of ourselves and each other.
Building an inclusive canon and embracing international voices isn’t about replacing the traditional canon. It’s also not about political correctness or identity politics. It’s about, as Morgan acknowledged, having access to stories that challenge assumptions, expand our viewpoints and show us the blind spots in the ways we have been looking at the world.
As Nguyen pointed out, “Books by immigrants, foreigners and minorities don’t diminish the ‘classic’ curriculum. They enhance it.”
So then, the challenge becomes, where to begin? As Morgan and Matar both pointed out, access to works in English translation is limited, and for readers, educators and librarians with limited knowledge of world literature, it can be daunting to know how to select authors and titles.
Fortunately, recommendations for diverse reading lists abound. Morgan’s literary itinerary could be an excellent path through world literature. In his Post article, Nguyen provides a list of 10 books by non-Western or nonwhite authors who are important to him.
Libraries – particularly academic libraries -- are increasingly supporting students and faculty seeking a more complete reading and research experience by providing access to critical articles, reference materials and biographical information as well as full-text novels, short stories and creative non-fiction by international writers. Library collections are evolving as librarians have begun evaluating literary resources on how well the resource combines classic with contemporary works from around the world.
Some major content providers are responding, as well. For example, ProQuest has integrated the Alexander Street World Literature and Black Writing Collections in its flagship Literature Online. This new Literature Online Premium presents minority and international authors alongside the traditional Western canon for side-by-side discovery.
Ultimately, it’s up to us – educators, libraries, publishers and content providers – to work together in providing access to a diversity of voices, ensuring that marginalized members of our international community can be heard, so that readers and researchers can learn from, and about, each other.
After all, this is what we love about literature: How it uniquely, beautifully, and sometimes uncomfortably puts us into the minds and realities of people who are different from us.
Recommended reading from Viet Thanh Nguyen
* as published in The Washington Post
Courtney Suciu is ProQuest’s lead blog writer. Her loves include libraries, literacy and researching extraordinary stories related to the arts and humanities. She has a Master’s Degree in English literature and a background in teaching, journalism and marketing. Follow her @QuirkySuciu