Why teaching world literature matters

Many years ago, while teaching an AP English class at another independent school, I realized that my knowledge of great texts from around the globe was too limited. Yes, I was enthusiastically introducing students to Faulkner, Woolf, Dickens, and Austen, and they were certainly appreciating these classics of literature, but as these author names suggest, I was decidedly narrow in the writers I chose to spotlight. I quickly turned my attention to widening my scope and adding authors and perspectives from other countries of the world. Doing so immediately led me to such writers as Orhan Pamuk (Turkey), Arundhati Roy (India), Amos Oz (Israel), and Edwidge Danticat (Haiti).

When I came to the Colorado Academy Upper School in 2003, I was pleased to find many like-minded folks within the English Department who wished to explore texts beyond the Western canon. (To be sure, the global language department has always done a wonderful job of exposing students to the masters of literature in their target languages.) Our foundational Freshman class, Coming of Age in the World, has featured writers from (or literature about) Iran, Afghanistan, Mexico, South Africa, Canada, Haiti, Palestine, China, Viet Nam, Thailand, and Nigeria, just to name a few. I have been fortunate enough to teach this course many times, including this year.

More recently at CA, I have taught two world literature electives: Contemporary Voices from the Middle East and Contemporary African Literature. In both cases, the reasoning for introducing the electives was twofold: the department felt we needed more world lit in our curriculum and, selfishly I suppose, I was personally interested in exploring these two regions of the world. I wanted students to understand these places better, for I knew there were many misconceptions and stereotypes that our students held, because they had only seen limited views through selective media. Consequently, when I teach these courses, I do quite a bit of contextualizing through the study of recent historical events in these countries; I want students to better understand the multiplicity of “voices” coming out of the Middle East and all across Africa.

Why expand beyond the borders of the U.S. and Europe?

I hope the answers to that question are self-evident. Showing students maps or providing factual information about a country is important but pales in comparison to reading literature by and about the people of that place. Individual stories help those nations come to life in a rich and meaningful way. We gain empathy and understanding of people in faraway places, noticing that even though there may be key differences, in many significant ways, they are much like us.

Among my favorites from recent years are books I have assigned in my classes and others that have informed my views of various countries and cultures. The amazing Mozambiquean author Mia Coutu, whom I first discovered through CA’s connection to the annual Neustadt Festival, has written several brilliant novels, including The Tuner of Silences and Under the Frangipani, which is the one I use in my African Literature course. Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie has received well-deserved acclaim over the past decade, and her coming-of-age novel The Purple Hibiscus is a part of our Ninth Grade English curriculum. Still, my vote for an even more impressive Nigerian novel is Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen, which pays homage to the grandfather of post-colonial African literature, Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe. Students in my class really enjoyed this book this year, and the discussion about it was lively and sophisticated.

Discovering these books is not nearly as difficult as it used to be. More presses are taking chances on writers from all over the world, and smaller independent publishers can use social media effectively to promote and promulgate world literature. Word of mouth helps, too. There are many people interested in global literature, and they like to share their favorite new finds.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I still love the great books of the U.S. and Western Europe. The Great Gatsby is probably still my favorite novel of all time (to read and to teach), and I have gobbled up everything written by authors as different as Vladimir Nabokov (alas, only what he wrote in English) and Toni Morrison. But I have very much appreciated the journeys into the great writing of other nations, and I hope to bring that enthusiasm to my students every chance I can.