Global Literature: An Active Experience

The English 255 course description as listed on the CUNYfirst website is as follows: “A historical study of the diversity of modern and contemporary Anglophone literatures and related literatures translated into English encompassing the complex transnational an postcolonial nature of much modern writing in English.” When considering how this course should have gone, it seems rational to break down this description and to see how well the course actually went about fitting it.

The first section deals with the selection of works included in the “historical study” of the course. In our section, we read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the poetry of William Butler Yeats and T.S. Elliot, Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Junot Diaz’s Drown, Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father, and Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior. When many professors go about choosing which works a class will read for the semester, they will refer to a certain cannon of literature. This does not necessarily, today, have to refer to that old-school cannon where one would have been made to believe that the only people writing anything in the world were white men. The commonly accepted requirement for a book to be included into the cannon is that it must have been influential in shaping modern culture while, of course, being of some higher level of literary brilliance. Some works from our selection stick out like sore thumbs when this distinction is made: Junot Diaz’s Drown, Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father, and Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis.

In making this assertion that those four works do not fit into a cannon, it might seem like a contradiction is being stated, as all of these authors are the ones which would have broken the confines of an all-white male cannon… if they were worthy of being included in that high classification. The fact is I didn’t feel that they were good enough to make the cut. It is not a fact, however, that women or peoples of other races do not have a place in the cannon. The New York Public Library’s Books of the Century exhibition, held in 1995, listed a broad spectrum of writers in their cannon, including Toni Morrison, Virginia Woolf, Federico García Lorca, Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel García Márquez, James Baldwin, Mohandas K. Gandhi, Chinua Achebe, and V. S. Naipaul. What distinguishes these authors from the four we read, I feel, is their ability to move their readers in such a way that they have a lasting effect on the whole of society. I have personally read works by Morrison and Achebe and they have stayed with me throughout my reading experience because of the way that their works transported me to the world they created, making me feel for the characters in them.

Out of all the works I have designated as non-cannonical, Junot Diaz’s work was the only one I had difficulty categorizing, as stories like “How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl or Halfie” are bathed in such realism that they are especially easy to relate to. But did it move me? Does it stand apart from all of the other coming-of-age stories lining bookshelves at the library today? No, I don’t think so. Richard Wright’s Native Son does a much better job at showing what the pressures of growing up as a minority marginalized in a white world can do to a person, simply for the fact that it moved me to such a degree that it made me look at the world slightly differently after reading it.

See, the problem many have with a cannon is they are unsure of who the authority categorizing and determining the literary value of works should be. I say the readers, themselves should determine it. Works which move readers, shaping their ideas about how the world is, or how it should be, and even those whose content has been universally accepted as having affected the world in some permanent way are the ones we should be reading. Dreams from My Father, a work focusing on Barack Obama’s community organizing with no literary skill could never fit into any of those categories. The Sun also Rises, though, a work which defines an era by means of a gripping tale, is sure to move the average reader, and for this reason it does belong in the cannon, white male author or not. The same can be said for the other works penned by white men which we read this semester. Again, this is not because they were white, but because the content of the works stands out as being great literature according to the definition I provided before.

I can see many arguments arising stating that though the four non-cannonical works might not fit into the cannon, they do work with the second part of the course description, namely that they are “encompassing the complex transnational an postcolonial nature of much modern writing in English.” All four of the works deal with some transnational or postcolonial theme, sure. But there are other works which fall into this designation while still fitting the definition of a work that belongs in the cannon. The NYPL’s exhibition had a whole section devoted to colonialism and its aftermath, composed of works by authors of many races and both sexes. Again, Chinua Achebe is a perfect example of one of these works, and it will stay with me, influencing my view of the world far more intensely than Maxine Hong Kingston’s work will.

Now, I don’t want to make it seem like I know all the answers. I don’t. How can one know which works will affect their class, especially in such an institution as Queens College, where the student body is as diverse as they come? How can new works be reigned into the cannon if professors keep assigning the tried and true works universally agreed upon as great by academia? I think the answers to these questions depend upon what type of experience the professor wishes to create with his or her students. As a student studying to become a teacher one day, I can only answer for myself how I would go about approaching that ultimate question: what books will I teach?

I feel that Global Literature should be an active experience. By this I mean that reading should never just be a student with a nose in a book, understanding the story for the story’s sake and leaving it at that. In a class with the title Global Literature, I feel that discussion is extremely necessary. These works are supposed to be the modern classics, works of struggle and change. Thinking about what they mean, on a global scale, should be a prime concern of the students reading them. How they relate to one another is another great question to consider. Also, this is meant to be a historical study. The historical background of a work is important to consider, as it is always greatly influential on its formation. These three points depend upon conversation to be made. As each student has had a different experience with the world, each of their impressions of a book can yield new insight to other students in the class. This active experience of engagement with a work is what distinguishes great books from dull ones. If a book can inspire great conversation, that means it has the capability of expanding one’s view of the world. Unfortunately, blogging never yielded these conversations, and in class, discussion seemed a mythical concept.

As a reader and English major, what I will take away from my experiences in my undergraduate level English courses is my memory of the conversations I’ve had about these works and of the way they’ve made me feel personally. The works by the white men, then, will stick with me because at least they made me feel something. However, if this course ran the way I described before, with open conversations occurring as a natural aspect of the course, I don’t think it would matter, really what was taught. Any work which described “the complex transnational an post-colonial nature of much modern writing in English” would suffice so long as the class were consistently engaged in active discussions about these works and the influence they have upon the reader and the world.

So to answer the question of how English 255 should function, I say that all of the works should first fit the description, of course. Then, the professor should consider their literary value, as Great Works are sure to stick to a reader simply for the fact that they know that they are great, and they will have to know them in their future career as an English major. If non-cannonical works are introduced, though, the only way it can be insured that they will stick with a reader is if discussion is fostered about them. Even the Great Works will have a more lasting and meaningful impact on a reader if those works are openly and thoroughly considered on a historical, global and personal scale. Just as the cannon should not be limited to white men, reading should not be limited to the passive experience it has been traditionally known for. Reading, especially today in a world filled with limitless avenues leading towards instant gratification, should always be an active experience.

Comments

Tall Tales

Maxine Kingston’s “The Woman Warrior” is different from any work I’ve ever read mainly because of its constant allusion to the spiritual / mystical realm. The American ghosts, for example, refer to any