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The Devil is in the Details

Carolina de Souza

This August marks the ten year anniversary of my immigration to Canada. Yes, time does fly. It’s been ten years of wearing snow boots, and scarves, and hats, and gloves. Ten years of pronouncing my name with an English accent, ten years of thinking, writing, and dreaming in a foreign language. But also ten years of safe nightly strolls, free health care, and scholarships that actually last the entire month. So yeah, I have nothing to complain about.

I was born and raised in Brazil. My South American education meant that when you were reading Shakespeare in high school, I was reading Camões. When you were reading Dickens, I was reading Eça de Queiroz. And when you were reading Virginia Woolf, I was reading Fernando Pessoa.

Okay, perhaps the difference here isn’t that substantial, since we were both reading texts from our corresponding colonizing literary traditions. This is true, but not the whole story, since I suspect your teenage-self had never heard of the names I just cited while Portuguese translations of these British authors have always been widely available in Brazil. So when I decided to pursue graduate studies in English, even though I had some catching up to do, the task didn’t seem as unattainable as perhaps it would be to you if our roles were reversed.

Now, with this in mind, let me to tell you another story.

A few weeks ago I was invited to a friend’s baby shower, an event I was certain would involve a guest list composed of names I did not recognize. For an introvert (I study literature, of course I am an introvert), being forced to interact with strangers can be quite stressful so looking for similarities I could use to start conversations was my only goal. Only I failed. From my point of view, I failed because I was the only immigrant, the only one with an accent, the only person who had not been raised watching Sesame Street. But from the perspective of the other guests, we did not have anything in common because I looked too “Canadian,” and thus unable to relate to their experiences as children of parents born in the Philippines.

Now, let’s transpose this little anecdote to world literature studies. Largely a North American phenomenon, world literature seems to be responding to a North American necessity, perhaps as a means of accounting for the large influx of immigrants bringing their favourite books overseas. Focusing primarily in our context here in Toronto, having lived through these two stories caused me to question some of our certainties. Within a global stage, Canada is known for its multiculturalism and its inclusion policies—particularly when compared to the US and Europe. So studying world literature in a Canadian institution has incredible potential to promote positive change, since it will inevitably be sustained by a cultural landscape that fosters tolerance, acceptance, and inclusion. Right?

I wish it was that simple. It feels almost unnecessary to reaffirm the impact of global capitalism and mass media throughout the world, which for our purposes means the wide distribution of English language texts, along with their cultural products. So Shakespeare today, for example, along with his set of international characters, enjoys immense global acclaim largely as a consequence of British imperialism. We are also familiar with the many postcolonial adaptations of his plays, at the same time acknowledging and challenging this influence, thus turning invasion into inversion. But we are world literature scholars, and our world is not made of polarities, hierarchies, and dichotomies. Correct?

The domain of postcolonial literature, with its important and necessary political dimension, cannot be the same as the domain of world literature, even though we have much to learn from postcolonial analysis of global power relations and the different local responses to globalization. Let me say that again: world literature has much to learn from discourses aimed at “decolonizing” the way we perform our scholarship, but we face a different set of problems. In order for world literature to promote a truly global politics, “writing back to empire” cannot be all we see. There is evidently much more to the fiction of Borges, and Achebe, and Rushdie than an answer to someone else’s questions. If we approach these texts expecting to find exotic landscapes and unusual customs, then this is what we will find. And nothing else. I am of course not saying that the trauma and violence of colonialism is not a recurring element. What I mean is that if this is all we are searching for, chances are we will stop our analysis once we find it. Where the postcolonial scholar ends, the scholar of world literature must begin. We must look beyond these forced oppositions even if all we can initially see are unstable frontiers and anxiety producing questions.

I hope you have followed me so far, perhaps even agreed with my arguments, but we both know I got a little bit vague there at the end. Let me explain.

We are here in Canada discussing world literature from our comfortable and warm homes, writing on our mac books, with enough money in the bank for a last minute Amazon order so we can finish that article. We are proud of our status as a cordial and inviting group of people that have been exposed to multiple languages and cultures for most of our lives. And yet, we still use terms such as “peripheral nations,” “minority literature,” and “replacing injustice with inclusion.” You don’t yet understand the issue I am pointing to, do you? There is nothing wrong with speaking of tolerance and inclusion, right?

I’ll start with the easiest argument. The notions of centre and periphery are relative and arbitrary, since what is central to me might not be to you, and vice-versa. Thus my initial comment on Camões, Queiroz, and Pessoa.

Now, to challenge the idea of “minority” or “ethnic” literature we need to move one step further. Sure these are also terms that depend on point of view, but with one important difference: they are steeped in ideology. The interplay between minority and majority changes once we move from the context of Canada to that of the entire globe. While the majority of the population of Canada might be of European ancestry, this is not the case for the majority of the world. So if we continue to label texts from China or India as “minority,” for example, we are not only logically incorrect, but we are, most importantly, still speaking from within the dominant mode of discourse, that same discourse used to justify imperialism and of which we claim to be trying to deconstruct.

Questioning the notions of “tolerance” and “inclusion” so characteristic of Canada’s multiculturalism might make us all a little uncomfortable. So hang in there. The fact that second and third generation Canadian born citizens are still being asked about their “backgrounds” makes me question the type of tolerance we are exercising. The mere “inclusion of the excluded” doesn’t seem enough, not only because it over simplifies a complicated situation, but also because it prevents us from asking different questions. By focusing on “canonizing” (or “discovering” and “exploring”) texts from other parts of the world, without discussing the ideologies and power relations that dominate our research, we are only perpetuating the status quo. In order for world literature to attain a truly global status, its relevance must reach beyond North American universities. Perhaps our first step should be to acknowledge that despite our reputation as an inclusive nation, we are nevertheless still operating from within the Western framework. It is only once we recognize the eventual racism of our alterity policies that we will be in a position to propose transformation. It is only by seeing passed our blind spots, by moving beyond the illusion of mythical identities and ideological straitjackets, that we will achieve a truly global perspective.

World literature studies must first and foremost be self-critical, not only mindful of the play of forces acting on our global stage, but also capable of recognizing that our questions might only be significant to us. Meaningful international conversation can only occur among subjects, not between subject and object. It is only by placing these other voices in tension with our own that a true critical perspective can emerge. It is only by understanding the immense reach of hegemonic ideologies that certain clichés can cease to exist. It is thus only after (un)learning our certainties, after forgetting our theories, that we will be able to establish a space for surprise that fosters innovation, a space where world literature studies can finally fulfill its transformative potential.

Carolina De Souza is a doctoral student in the Department of English at York University. She specializes in contemporary world literature, focusing on the intersection between Latin American and global expressions of Magic Realism.

IWL 2018: Rachel Wong

I attended the Institute for World Literature in the summer of 2018 when it was held at the University of Tokyo, Hongo Campus. Over the course of four weeks (much of which was a record-breaking heat wave for the archipelago) I took part in various seminars and guest lectures. There was also a colloquium series where junior and senior scholars with loosely connected research interests came together on a weekly basis to discuss some of the basic principles and ideas of these interests in a collegiate manner. I was among more than 120 participants from twenty countries and twenty-one institutions.

I spent my seminar time enrolled in Jing Tsu’s (Yale), “Multi-Scale Literary Studies” where we spent two weeks working against many of the foundational ideas of World Literature grounding our context in a sample of contemporary Chinese literature only to come back to the foundations of World Literature at the end of the seminar. Tsu occupied a very interesting space in this seminar—while not completely rejecting World Literature, she does not wholly embrace it either. As someone with a background in Comparative Literature, it was refreshing to approach World Literature with a healthy combination of scholarly caution and robust enthusiasm.

My second seminar was with Katharina Piechocki (Harvard) and titled, “Rethinking World Literature Through Cartography and the Spatial Turn.” Here, we used Spatial Theory to renegotiate how we organize literature across time and space as it relates to the field of World Literature. With a focus on the concept of islands and ‘island literature.’ I found this particularly useful to my own research as much of the content overlapped with topics covered in my first major comprehensive exam (which I was preparing for at the time).

While the IWL is known for its intellectual space, there is also plenty of room for creative writers to flourish. There were a number of artistic guest lectures and performances including an interactive and inclusive poetry reading that included local and international poets and artists based in Tokyo as well as participants of the IWL.

Working hard during the IWL at the University of Tokyo’s Hongo Campus. Photo courtesy of the IWL.

Rachel Wong is a doctoral candidate in the Department of English at York University, Toronto, Canada. She holds a BA in English and History from Simon Fraser University and a Masters in Comparative Literature from Western University. Her dissertation examines the intersections between activism and literature in the Chinese Canadian community and its relationship with Asian Canadian Studies.

A Tale of Two Worlds

Tyler Scott Ball

In the summer of 2016 I visited the Institute for World Literature at Harvard University. The following summer I attended the African Literature Association’s annual conference, the theme for which was “Africa and the World,” and a great many panels and panelists considered the role African literatures might play in the emergent field of world literature. The following is an attempt to place my encounters with these institutions in radical juxtaposition, allowing one to interrogate the other. I will sketch a rough genealogy and analyse the discursive practices at work in their respective mission statements, programs, and keynote addresses.

The Institute for World Literature (IWL) was founded in 2011 by the Chair of the Department of Comparative Literature at Harvard, David Damrosch. In part, the institute was a response to the resurgent interest in world literature that had developed over the previous decade, but the field traces its roots back to the continental European comparatists of the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries.[1] In his genealogy of world literature, Aamir R. Mufti maintains that “world literature was from the beginning an eminently Orientalist idea, made possible by the new philological and institutional practices that made up the world of modern Orientalism” (36). And while proponents of world literature are certainly invested in genealogies with philological origins, the imperial or colonial contexts in which these disciplines were forged go largely unacknowledged. The field seems further invested in an image of the world that is newly globalized, and a belief that canon expansion is a necessary requirement for literary studies in this new context. The mission statement of the IWL states:

“The Institute for World Literature (IWL) has been created to explore the study of literature in a globalizing world. As we enter the twenty-first century, our understanding of “world literature” has expanded beyond the classic canon of European masterpieces and entered a far-reaching inquiry into the variety of the world’s literary cultures and their distinctive reflections and refractions of the political, economic, and religious forces sweeping the globe (emphasis added).”

What strikes me about this statement is its presumptive use of the possessive pronoun “our” in the second sentence, which extends an invitation to the reader to be included within the collective on the condition that they accept a particular formulation (fabrication?) of the world. In order for our shared world to expand beyond the established canon, we must first accept a Eurocentric universe as our starting point and ground. “Underlying this supposed global and historical breadth,” Michael Allan suggests, “is an assumption that the accumulation of traditions under the rubric of world literature leads to a deprovincialization of literary knowledge” (115). Is it enough for an expansion of the canon to seek to include “the world,” rather than the exclusively European world, without first addressing the criteria that excluded the non-western world in the first instance? Or, to put it another way, if our project intends to replace injustice with inclusion, without meaningfully addressing injustice, then how are we to avoid reifying the same colonial logics that produced the imbalance we seek to correct? Or, to put it in even another way, is there a fundamental difference between the imperial projects of philologists and translators during the colonial era and the project of world literature in this contemporary iteration?

In his introductory lecture, David Damrosch showed us a graph of what he calls the hypercanon: those authors about whom over a hundred new scholarly works are published annually. The list included James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, Jorge Borges, and Virginia Woolf. As Damrosch pointed out, each of these writers represents a powerful Western European language, whether English French, German, or Spanish. He discussed the disparity in scholarly attention that would see the relatively minor French author Georges Perec rank among such literary giants as Rabindranath Tagore, Orhan Pamuk, and Naguib Mahfouz. The discrepancy of influence was noted, it was bemoaned, but the long histories of colonization, globalization, and cultural assimilation that lead to it remained entirely untheorized.

In his concluding remarks, Damrosch made clear that the study of world literature demands a certain degree of selection on the part of its scholars, who are ultimately tasked with deciding what is worth discussing. Or, to put it another way, what literature counts and what counts for literature. He suggested that these are political decisions and need to be treated as such, declaring: “What I think we need to do is push against our own will to power over our material” (20 June 2016). Looking back, this statement strikes me as an important example of the bright potential of world literature as a concept, and the willingness of the field to highlight the shortcomings of “national one-sidedness and narrowmindedness,” as Marx and Engels put it, felt liberating (143). We are going to need a lot more than pithy statements, however, if we are going to resist the persistent forces of globalization, colonization, and capitalist accumulation.

Consider for a moment the selections that Damrosch made in developing his own syllabus for the seminar he ran at the IWL that summer. At first glance, the scope of his reading list seems impressive. Texts from across Europe, East Asia, and Latin America make up the bulk of the readings, but they are complemented by Caribbean and South Asian writers, as well as texts from Tibet and Taiwan. If we consider the list by another metric, one that does not consider all nations to have been created or subjugated equally, its apparent diversity disappears. The overwhelming majority (93%) of the works assigned for this seminar, entitled “Grounds for Comparison,” come from the national literatures of G20 nations. Precisely the same pattern exists if we consider the makeup of the IWL. Of the 151 participants in attendance in 2016, 134 came from institutions located in G20 nations. And so, though dozens of nations are represented at IWL each year, and there are most certainly scholars who come from the peripheries of the world system, they have had to find their way into the centres of global power in order to be included within the world of world literature, and the same can be said of the texts that are deemed worthy of inclusion. We should not downplay the work that has been done to expand the canon, or the range of scholars who participate in world literature as a field; however, the question remains: is the imperative towards expansion an attempt to disrupt the systems that produce exclusion, or is it merely an attempt to redraw the existing borders to include the officially-sanctioned canons of the sufficiently-developed world?[2]

At the ALA in 2017, Simon Gikandi delivered a keynote address entitled “African Literature in the World,” in which he praises the “drive for plurality and planetarity” of world literature and observes that the success of the project “depends on its capaciousness and inclusiveness, its ability to provide modalities that are as comprehensive and as diverse as the world itself” (16 June 2017). Gikandi asks whether “literatures produced in the periphery of the world system [can] meet the standards established by the high-priests of world literature?” (16 June 2017). Using the principles set out by Damrosch in his influential work What is World Literature? (2003), Gikandi declares that “almost all African texts belong to world literature” (16 June 2017); and yet, despite satisfying the criteria for inclusion within the field, African literature remains overlooked and underdiscussed in world literary circles. This leads Gikandi to ask: “why is the world literature establishment afraid of African writing?” and “what is it that this thing called African literature seems to threaten?” (16 June 2017).

If we return to the various syllabi for the seminars taught at the IWL in 2016, the neglect of African writings is patent. Of the 13 seminars offered that summer, more than half failed to discuss a single African text, including Damrosch’s own seminar. In total only a dozen texts out of more than 350 assigned readings for over a hundred sessions could be said to come from African contexts, and the overwhelming majority of these were from a select few writers in what we might think of as the African hypercanon: J.M. Coetzee, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, and the newly-anointed Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. One wonders what Chinua Achebe did to be excluded this time. In all seriousness, however, there is some merit to judiciously accounting for the remainder in these literary exchanges, that sum that refuses to balance.

Gikandi began his talk by celebrating the linguistic and cross-cultural complexity of the African literary community, admitting that he had been walking around the conference making note of all the languages he could recognize: “So far I have found 12 Nigerian, 8 Kenyan, 6 Ugandan, 4 or 5 Cameroonian languages, and this is only day two of the conference” (16 June 2017). Ultimately, he declared: “Africans truly are the language people” (16 June 2017). Of the roughly 7000 languages in the world, more than 2000 are found in Africa. In comparison, there are less than 300 languages in the whole of Europe, about as many as can be found in Cameroon. During the question period, Ato Quayson offered a rather provocative explanation for the exclusion of Africa from the major discussions and anthologies of world literature: ignorance. Looking around the room he observed that this audience was proficient in hundreds of languages, including all of the major European languages, and he questioned whether the inverse was true for scholars of world literature.

Perhaps the very concept that national one-sidedness can be equated with narrowmindedness is a problem that results from the enforced homogeneity of Euro-nationalism, where nation-people-language are expected to align. Perhaps the shift towards minority literatures, or towards the peripheries and margins is a biproduct of monocultural exhaustion. And perhaps our attempts to address this problem could benefit a great deal from (con)texts in which homogeneity is not the norm, or even the expectation. Gikandi and Quayson seemed to agree that the struggle for African literature is not simply to fight for inclusion but to fight to renegotiate the terms of inclusion. As Gikandi noted: “The texts that are admitted into the configuration of world literature are those that seem to retain and sustain not only the romantic idea of literature that was driving Goethe’s project, but also a European centre that remains undisturbed by that which was meant to disturb it” (16 June 2017). Perhaps it is time to be disturb.

On my very first night at the IWL, I attended a reception dinner at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, where I found myself desperately trying to concentrate on a conversation about translating Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway from English into English, while the knowing eyes of recently-extinct animals stared at me from behind their glass cases. It all seemed rather tongue and cheek, the sort of thing you might say to sound clever in a room full of academics. As I still struggled to figure out if the speaker was being facetious, I think about the 135 African languages that are in the process of going extinct, and the 366 others that are endangered. I wonder whether the curators of future generations will be able to house them in glass cases like they have done with the last of the heath hens.

While attending the ALA I had a chance to visit the Yale University Art Gallery, and spent the afternoon in the west wing—three floors containing a collection of African, Asian, and Indo-Pacific art. While wandering the African gallery I had a rather fortuitous encounter with Guarav Desai and Kevin Hickey, in which Dr. Desai pointed out a sculpture from Sierra Leone that featured a female figure wearing a bindi. He spoke about the cross-currents of Indian and African histories, and the Indian Ocean world that has been circulating for millennia. Dr. Hickey and I spoke briefly about the tragically speculative labels on many of the African artworks.

The label for the piece mentioned above identified the artist as “possibly” John Goba and stated that this object “could be a reference to the slave trade” or it “might” address “ongoing racial tensions in the country” (Lamp et al. 312). Other labels said no more than “Unidentified Kom Artist,” “Unidentified Baule Artist,” “Unidentified Yamba Artist” (Lamp et al. 145, 126, 300)—the last of these labels described the piece as being from “Cameroon or Nigeria.” This lack of specificity was a problem that seemed isolated to the western wing and sat in stark contrast to the rich details that were bestowed upon works from the European exhibits of the central galleries. More glaring still was the fact that many of the pieces on display in the African exhibit were contemporary artworks, including those possibly produced by John Goba—a living artist whose work continues to circulate in the metropoles of Paris, New York, and Los Angeles. And yet we often know more about the wealthy donors that amassed these collections than we do about the artists who produced the works they so coveted.[3]

We can think of these museums not as analogies for world literature, but as parallel projects of accumulation, which highlights some of the tendencies at work in the both fields. In their current iterations, these projects seem driven by a desire for acquisition, rather than a desire for meaningful inclusion. It is not enough for the canons of the non-European world to be added to the pile of world literature, like so many volumes in a Borgesian universal library. The truly radical potential at the heart of the concept of world literature is the impetus to rethink literary studies outside of the national, or even transnational condition. To engage with that potential, however, the study of world literature should be a deeply disturbing practice that seeks out material, conceptual, and experiential encounters that undermine world systems of global circulation, capitalist accumulation, and colonial subjugation.

[1] Although there are countless possible origins for the concept of world literature, dating as far back as ancient Sumer (c. 2000 BCE), the more commonly cited source texts tend to be Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s “Conversations with Eckermann on Weltliteratur” (1827), Hugo Metzl’s “Present Tasks of Comparative Literature” (1877), Hutcheson Macaulay Posnett’s “What is World Literature?” (1886), and Karl Marx’s rather brief discussion of world literature from The Communist Manifesto (1848).

[2] In his recent book, In the Shadows of World Literature, Michael Allan rather astutely observes: “world literature is not the neutral meeting ground of a variety of textual practices, but rather assumes—and at times enforces—a particular place for literature in the world” (4-5).

[3] The great bulk of the Yale African art collection was donated by New York real estate magnate Charles B. Benenson, whose second wife used to wear a nineteenth-century Fon headdress to cocktail parties—an anecdote that the Yale Alumni Magazine thought fit to print on the occasion of the galleries acquisition of the collection.

Tyler Scott Ball is a doctoral student and SSHRC Joseph-Armand Bombardier research fellow in the Department of English at York University. He specializes in contemporary literature from the Indian Ocean with a focus on the impact of oceanic environments on cultural production in the region’s various littoral zones.

Works Cited

Allan, Michael. In the Shadow of World Literature: Sites of Reading in Colonial Egypt. Princeton UP, 2016.

Damrosch, David. What Is World Literature? Princeton: Princeton UP, 2003.

—. “2016 IWL: David Damrosch, ‘What Isn’t World Literature? Problems of Language, Context, and Politics.’” Youtube, uploaded by Delia Ungureanu, 6 August 2016,

Gikandi, Simon. “Simon Gikandi on African Literature in the World: Imagining a Post-Colonial Public Sphere.” Uploaded by YaleUniversity, 16 June 2017,

von Goethe, J.W. [1827] “Conversations with Eckermann on Weltliterateur.” Trans. John Oxenford. Conversations with Eckermann 1823-1832, Everyman Library, 1930.

Lamp, Frederick John et al. Accumulating Histories: African Art from the Charles B. Benenson Collection at Yale University Art Gallery. Yale UP, 2012.

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. [1848] The Communist Manifesto, The Seabury Press, 1967.

Metzl, Hugo. [1877] “Present Tasks of Comparative Literature.” Trans. Hans-Joachim Schulz and Phillip H. Rhein. Edited by David Damrosch et al., The Princeton Sourcebook in Comparative Literature, Princeton UP, 2009, pp. 42-49.

Mufti, Aamir R. Forget English! Orientalisms and World Literatures. Harvard UP, 2016.

Posnett, Hutcheson Macaulay. “What is World Literature?” Comparative Literature, Kegan Paul, Trendl & Co., 1886. pp. 235-41.

IWL 2018: Angie Min Ah Park

The 8th IWL session took place on the serene campus of the University of Tokyo, erected north of the bustling Tokyo downtown and surrounded by national museums encircling the beautiful Ueno Onshi Park. I had the privilege of participating in this 8th session held in July among more than 120 scholars from 24 countries and 21 institutions.

In this session, the impressive program included four-week seminars taught by David Damrosch (Harvard), Christopher Bush (Northwestern), Pheng Cheah (UC Berkeley), Jing Tsu (Yale), Ursula Heise (UCLA), Mitsuyoshi Numano (U of Tokyo), Delia Ungureanu (U of Bucharest), Zhang Longxi (City U of Hong Kong), and Wiebke Denecke (Boston). Memorable guest lectures were delivered by artists and translators actively engaging with the worldly possibilities of text: Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries, a web artist duo based in Seoul; Motoyuki Shibata, a renowned Japanese translator; and the bilingual writer imagining between Japanese and German languages, Yoko Tawada.

As a first-year doctoral student, the Institute experience was inspiring both creatively and professionally. I presented developing ideas for my dissertation project on Korean Canadian Literature at the “Sociology and Literature” colloquium in participation with global scholars examining the intersectionality between literature and local and global contexts, including politics, culture(s), institutions, laws, and markets, through their research. The feedback I received from this colloquium offered a diversity of theoretical approaches to consider for my dissertation.

The relationship I built with students and scholars from various institutions also helped me to mark future opportunities for engagement and research dissemination. As one especially helpful engagement, I met doctoral students from South Korea, who offered invaluable advice regarding summer courses and archives pertaining to my research interests in links between modern Korean literature and literatures of the Korean diaspora. Motivated by these interactions, I will be exploring these interests further through a fieldwork research trip in South Korea in the upcoming fall semester!

To read more of my research and for my full bio, visit

World Literature versus Postcolonial Literature: Any Basis to its Claim?

Nasra Smith

The resurgence of world literature and its opposition to postcolonial literature has ignited vigorous debates. While some scholars have publicly confronted contentious claims of Postcolonial Studies’ dwindling scholarship in an era of Globalization Studies, Translation Studies, and World Literature—Baidik Bhattacharya’s Postcolonial Writing in the Era of World Literature; Amir Mufti’s Forget English! Orientalisms and World Literatures; and Chantal Zabus’s The Future of Postcolonial Studies, come to mind—others have privately exchanged their defense in their classrooms or on paper. Whether against world literature’s veritable erasure of the (postcolonial) Other, or its unassuming rendering of a Europe-centered perspective, its coeval rebirthing and mission to replace postcolonial literature is a self-mystifying hyperbole that generates distortions of its appearance versus its essence. In world literature’s attempt to be an exemplary substitute to postcolonial literary criticism, it has avoided its own representational claims.

My dear friends and colleagues, you have heard by now it is better to be critical and leave room for differences, rather than be a critic; so please allow me to explain myself. As a graduate student deeply exhausted from a steady stream of doctoral writing and competing—are we not all trying to publish often, attend conferences, and win awards, all the while watching the statistically depressing rates of professorial employment, and the faculty’s invigorated answer in alternative careers—, the introduction of World Literature posed a new concern for me. As the diploma piqued interest in our department, debates on the relevance of postcolonial literature began. The requirements and rewards (note: Harvard Institute of World Literature) of the diploma aside, reconciling a long-standing involvement with postcolonial studies, or frustration with bringing its theoretical apparatus to a productive dialogue with one’s research problems, or even pursuing literary inquiries outside its purview, is harder to accomplish for students. Lacking constructive discussions on both disciplines, world literature quickly rose to produce an exclusionary politics in our department, thus minimizing the diversity of critical scholarship. Mufti explains its effect on students and scholars alike: “The idea of world literature seems to exercise a strange gravitational force on all students of literature, even on those whose primary impulse is to avoid or bypass it entirely, forcing on them involuntary and unwanted changes of course and orientation” (2). While Mufti’s analysis somewhat assumes students are critically unaware, there is greater truth to the commodification (and conformity) of world literature in English departments across the world. He adds, “…The ongoing institutionalization of world literature in the academic humanities and in publishing cannot quite dispel a lingering sense of unease about its supposed overcoming of antagonism and a reconciliation and singularity that is too easily achieved” (Mufti 2). On my part, I felt the certificate was served as a fait accompli. By declining, I understood the field did not help me re-encounter postcolonial literary texts undoubtedly shaped by historical and contemporary exigencies.

Notwithstanding my department’s intentions, nor the few others enticed by the alternative position the field promises, I ask what is world literature? From what I read, world literature encourages the internationalization of literature beyond national identities and cultural affinities. According to the Journal of World Literature (JWL), its substantive mission embraces the “antimonies” of the fields of Comparative Literature, Postcolonial Studies, Literary Theory, and Translation Studies (Damrosch 2). David Damrosch writes these antimonies are the paralyzing, yet escapable “rifts” between cosmopolitan and national/cultural discourse, postcoloniality in an era of globalization, and works of translation versus texts of original languages (2). The answer to these challenges—the happy consequence—is world literature. Its commandments implant a spirit of this responsibility: “These are real divisions and they cannot be ignored,” declares Damrosch (2). Proleptically, its stone tablets detail its fight against exclusivity by parceling up Western European canons into its own agnostic revisioning. The discipline applauds itself as paying attention to the literatures of the world: (1) to advance more languages and texts (via translation); (2) to accept the reliance on English as a pedagogical inference (never mind the perils of Anglo-Globalism or what Bhattacharya argues is Anglophone’s totalizing force in re-inaugurating the singularity of world literature (9); (3) receptivity to periodization (pre-modern, modern, contemporary periods of western teleology); (4) and the ever-expanding context of ‘literary circulation’ signifies temporality over spatiality (perhaps inspired by Pheng Cheah’s theory-deft Hegel-Marx formation of cosmopolitanism and the role of time as worlding).

While proponents of world literature claim its definitions are manifold, inspired by the diversification of postmodern and postcolonial discourses, its opponents argue it is a revived concept that embodies the historical encounters of the European gaze as its starting point. The field has expanded since the 1990s, and as Damrosch asserts, it comprises “all literary works that circulate beyond their culture of origin, either in translation or in their original languages” (4). In its reliance on fiction’s encompassing power—mediated through texts that traverse borders and break free of cultural and national specificities—it encourages Enlightenment universalisms in its conceptual opposition to national narratives, rather than assert the promotion of non-European universalisms as an ethical imperative to further social transformation and representative change in our world. Given our current global milieu, the idea of reading the literatures of the world to challenge dichotomies and borders into a mediation of exchanges, circulations, and connections has gained currency, yet it uncritically distorts and dehistoricizes the legacy of imperial economies of extraction and western modernity that dominated the global south and settler colonies—colonialism, slavery, indentured labour, resource extraction, land possession, political sovereignty, cultural alienation, and language loss. More so, it devalues the insurgency and resistance of many postcolonial masses who strive beyond a subaltern consciousness of fragmentation and displacement and towards a Left-focused and ethically-sensible praxis.

In his book, Bhattacharya contends world literature is neither a reconciliation of the world’s diverse literature, nor a new framework to existing challenges of globalization and transnationalism. First, he argues the field is “dead” as it purports a “nineteenth century ideal…always and already embedded in colonial histories” (n.p.). For its two main models are the “mimetic systems [that] account for all literatures of the world and [a] miniaturized replication of Europe to map whatever lies beyond its discursive limits” (22). Second, its literary framework and cosmopolitan imagination is already exhausted by postcolonial Anglophone writers like J.M. Coetzee, V.S. Naipaul, and Salman Rushdie. Bhattacharya defines the field’s multiplicity, methodology, and purpose as a progression towards universalization first, canonicity second, and third the examination of literature’s intrinsic characteristics, as per Casanova, versus its extrinsic values. For postcolonialists, examining the text within the parameters of its aesthetics and formal features without any adherence to historical, political, and social analysis is insuperable. Concerned with the “trinity figure” of David Damrosch, Franco Moretti, and Pascale Casanova, Bhattacharya questions the reliance on their “canonical status” as “unparalleled” in today’s standards (22; Hayot 33,38). The concern with these key (American/European) figures speaks to the unease of how it privileges, or allows one to be detached from the condition of the Other. In addition, it defines ‘who’ validates the primacy of the literary text. As English scholars, the text holds great importance, for it enters spaces where theory cannot dwell. As an object of thought (and hence of knowledge), the text has power. Rightfully, this power can be an antidote to theoretical confinement and its manipulation of content and context. All literary theories enact an epistemic violence on the text, and postcolonial criticism is no exception but neither is world literary studies. As I read it, world literature cannot escape its own sectorial language, nor its desire to monopolize the truth. Beyond the inclusivity of world texts, harnessing an assemblage of multiple positions—oppositional but complimentary, integrative but advocating a strong stance while combing through other theories (favorite: postcolonial theory), and freedom to pursue its own lines of inquiry—suggests a specific point of view between who can define ‘the world,’ access it and be a part of it.

In tackling the issue of cosmopolitanism (a key direction for world literature), Didier Costa argues that beyond questions of canon and who is entitled to ‘world-making,’ world literature is “extremely ambiguous” because of the problems it generates in confining any work implicated as “cultural” in our era of globalization (328). Costa’s notion of experimental cosmopolitanism, not only denounces the renewal of cosmopolitan’s one-sided, hidden and conflictual force that propels the ideologies of comparative and world literatures, but declares itself as an ethical project towards decentering utopian ideals and fixed notions of originality while embracing all cultural differences (that does not divide and exclude through its definition). To simplify this, Mufti’s Forget English! claims world literature inadvertently purports “modern Orientalism,” as per Edward Said’s term (in Bhattacharya 24; Mufti n.p.). In his harsh analysis, he imbues the field regurgitates capitalist modernity and bourgeoisie culture. While his insistence on world literature’s dependency on English and translation studies is to argue against its (cosmopolitan) limitlessness, by centralizing Said’s study on imperial structures of power/knowledge, he equally admonishes its provincialization of Europe—reminiscent of Dipesh Chakrabarty’s thesis in Provincializing Europe. Where Mufti attempts a postcolonial analysis of British India, Chakrabarty’s theorization of the imaginary Europe with which notions of teleological time, unhistoricized spaces, and ‘primitive’ natives in the colonization of Others—Native-American/Canadian, African, Asian, Latin American, Aboriginal Australians—and the imperious confidence of the motherland finds a contemporary friend in world literature. If the field found its theoretical treatise in Cheah’s What is a World?, in its championing of “time” through a Marxist historicity while readily maturing the literary text as the active agent that intervenes in all processes, then its argument for the death of postcolonial analysis is still incomplete. Cheng’s reversing of a spatial understanding of the world, despite his notation of time in historical materialism, cannot fully concretize the tenets of domination and subordination in the postcolonial south. World-time is European, and Cheng’s charge of its “imprisonment” in silencing local temporalities is noteworthy, yet faultily ignores the maturation of capitalist hegemony in determining the necessity and abject conditions of many impoverished groups and communities. Another interesting defense is Allan’s In the Shadow of World Literature. Although focused on world literature in his extensive exposition of modern Arabic literature, he attempts to redefine the field in both possible and problematic ways. Taking colonial Egypt as a site (note: Egypt is in Africa, it is not Africa) and example of the limits of reading publics, Allan centralizes the “formation of the ethical subject” to reconstitute the textual practises of postcolonial and world literatures (3). While I feel in his ethical reconstruction he questions the normative as well as the exclusionary claims of any critical field, he argues that world literature expands the representational subject of the postcolonial text to the “critical subject” of the world (9). The main problem with Allan’s theorization is the ‘site’ of Egypt as a historical power in North and East Africa, and its conflicting relationship with the Middle East, Arab world, and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Hence, after reading much of the inaugural issue of JWL and other books, I have concluded this much: even in countering the assertion that world literature encourages an Eurocentric paradigm, its inability to focus on its own shortcomings is problematic. While the infighting among postcolonial scholars has resulted in extensive ideological differences, it is almost necessary to offer diverse modes of readings and misreadings. This article has pointedly asked about world literature as its primary question, while its secondary question—whether postcolonial studies is tethering on its last legs—underscores the field’s need for its own deeper exploration. While it is a pertinent question to ask, and one addressed well in advance by Ania Loomba’s passionate call for postcolonial critiques of globalization, as well as many scholars who move theory and criticism forward in the field, it still has a long way to go. Thus, the future of postcolonial studies must challenge its own former attributes, while highlighting new intersectional differences. In recent criticism, we can note diverse discourses on contemporary migration (forced migration, refugee studies, diaspora, and returnees), spatiality and narrative geographies, literatures of liberation, globalization and hybridity, Left universalism, and Marxist influence in postcolonial theory. Its geographic scope is forcing tectonic shifts in our understanding of hemispheric studies, world maps and literary cartography. Certainly, gaining momentum is Indian Ocean Studies, North African/Maghreb Studies, and a rethinking of the Eastern African region. As new areas expand the reach of postcolonial inquiry, while equally sparking off its incommensurability (as a strength), Indigenous Studies/Literature, African/Asian/South American indigeneity and language literatures, and Dalit Studies, challenge how minority groups have access to political, economic, and social institutions that have historically limited their participation. For instance, Jodi Byrd’s Transit of Empire is a powerful indictment of the imperial conceit of Euro-American power. In her impressive book, she poignantly asks if the indigenous subject can define itself? Byrd’s premise of indigeneity as “transit” distinguishes its own dominated past from postcolonial others, all the while transforming the field through the material conditions of both the realist and revolutionary subject (xv).

The focus on reading practises in new/old postcolonial genres also have reenergized our appetites—postcolonial poetics; Afropolitanism; African FutureS (futuristic sci-fi); Postcolonial Trauma Studies (that asserts histories of genocide and mass trauma in the south within (and beyond) the ongoing theorization by Holocaust Studies; note: 25th year anniversary of the Rwandan genocide); ecocriticism, greening and paradisiacal discourse embedded in neocolonial imaginaries; new postcolonial realms (example: Italophone writers of Somali, Eritrean and Ethiopian descent);  and the changing notions of gender, sexualities, and queering. Indeed, as Chantal Zabus’s The Future of Postcolonial Studies acknowledges its eventual demise, the role of western academics in publishing production and reception requires greater scrutiny, while the revitalization and promotion of indigenous languages/literatures and ways of being needs to be placed front and center (a great example: the role of storytelling in Aboriginal people’s experiences to change our epistemological structures of what we hear and know). Without adhering to a ‘back and forth’ of every claim and counter-claim between world literature and postcolonial studies, Zabus claims its near-death experience is an opportunity to sufficiently attend to its theoretical assessments. In the edited collection, Zabus identifies the field’s unprecedented surge through its second-generation of scholars, with herself and current scholars as expanding its notions of intersectionality (5). I add that a newer set of scholars must address the rising proliferation of technology, terrorism and territorialization of nations and borders in a post-WWII, post-cold war politics, post-911, post-national/transnational, geopolitical world; yet the postcolonial imperative must always call for the agency of the postcolonial subject.

In the end, I hope world literature will follow the same call. I am certain that in undergoing its own “infighting” world literature will attend to those questioning voices, and explore the ways in which its theoretical and methodological frameworks do not address the issues and dilemmas that plague our twenty-first century. I am also certain that the new crop of emerging scholars, cognizant of the differences between postcolonial and world literatures, will adhere to the question of ethics. Therefore, the opposition between world literature and postcolonial literature is deeply problematic in its entrenchment of how opposition is secured and validated. Difference is necessary, almost injunctive to growing as a scholar, while rekindled suspicion and passion are entertaining in theoretical debates, yet I would like to end by reminding you that it is not easy to defend ethics, but necessary in the work we do and the texts we read.

Nasra Smith is a doctoral candidate and Teaching Assistant in the Department of English at York University. She holds a BA (Spec. Hon) in Individualized Studies, an MEd in Education, and an MA in English from York University. Nasra is currently writing her dissertation on East African Literature.

Works Cited

Allan, Michael. In the Shadow of World Literature: Sites of Reading in Colonial Egypt. Princeton University Press, 2016.

Bhattacharya, Baidik. Postcolonial Writing in the Era of World Literature: Territories, Globalizations. Routledge, 2019.

Byrd, Jodi A. The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism. University of Minnesota Press, 2011.

Costa, Didier. “Experimental Cosmopolitanism. Reframing Critical Literary and Cultural Theories: Thought on the Edge, edited by Nicolette Pireddu, Palgrave Macmillan, 2018, pp. 327-52.

Damrosch, David. “The World in a Journal.” Journal of World Literature, vol. 1, no. 1, 2016, pp.1-7.

—. What is World Literature? Princeton University Press, 2003.

Hayot, Eric. On Literary Worlds. Oxford University Press, 2012.

Mufti, Amir. Forget English! Orientalisms and World Literatures. Harvard University University Press, 2016.

Zabus, Chantal. The Future of Postcolonial Studies. Routledge, 2015.




IWL 2017: Vanessa Evans

When I attended the IWL, the summer school was hosted by the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, in joint partnership with Aarhus University. As in previous years, the institute was attended by over 150 scholars from 50 countries which made for a truly unique experience. The scholars I met and the conversations we had (to say nothing of the reading recommendations!) were the highlight for me, but there was so much that was wonderful about those four weeks.

I spent my seminar time enrolled in “Multilingualism, Translation, and World Literature” with Reine Meylaerts (KU Leuven, Belgium) and “Between Nations: Migrant Writing and the Cultural Meeting in the Text” with Mads Rosendahl Thomsen (Aarhus University, Denmark). I enjoyed both seminars immensely but neither more than my weekly Postcolonial Colloquium, led by Tanutrushna Panigrahi (International Institute of Information Technology Bhubaneswar, India). Here I was fortunate to engage with PhD and MA students from South Korea, the United States, India, Austria, and Switzerland, whose work mobilized postcoloniality alongside Middle Welsh and Anglo-Latin Literature, Galician Literature, and Queer Islamic Oralities, to name a few intersections. Our conversations have stayed with me since those Tuesday mornings and I look back at my notes often.

Of our guest lecturers, I was most interested to hear from the then (see: Jean-Claude Arnault scandal) Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, Sara Danius. Her talk, “How to get the Nobel Prize in Literature”, left us all mystified as it revealed very little, if anything at all, about how one “gets” the Nobel prize or how the winner is selected. Everyone spent the following days discussing the lecture only to realize it had achieved its desired effect: further mystification. The fact that I am speaking about this today is testament to its reach!

My Postcolonial Colloquium Group!

Vanessa Evans is a doctoral candidate in the Department of English at York University. She holds a B.A. in English from the University of Calgary and an M.Litt. in Modernities from the University of Glasgow. Vanessa is currently a visiting lecturer at the Obama Institute for Transnational American Studies at Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz.

Yeah, Sure. But, How?

Vanessa Evans

I want to take this opportunity to speak transparently about methodology in literary study, its anxieties and potential remedies. I hope I’m not only speaking to myself here, but I think there is much to be gained from students of literary study taking time to think more about that dreaded how. As such, this blog post calls for an honest conversation about why an aura of insecurity exists around the how of what we do. Allaying my own anxieties has been a long road, one that world literature and its theory at first complicated but eventually clarified. I hope I can encourage some of you to find comfort wading into those murky methodological waters with somewhat less trepidation. I believe literary study has real contributions to make here—if we can only talk about them more.

Prior to writing the proposal for my dissertation, it pains me to admit that I didn’t spend much time thinking about how I was constructing my literary critique. I close read with a particular approach in search of certain yields that related to my argument—that was my method (and in many ways it still is). I’m not saying that there is something wrong with this, but there is something wrong with the fact that this was the extent to which I could articulate my process. Somewhere along the line “methodology” had become a bad word for me, a word from more scientific fields that the art of literary critique avoided directly interacting with for fear of wringing the life from what we do. Methods were dry, scientific, and somehow oblique to my work. I argued that literary critique performs, it shows rather than tells, all the while knowing I was hiding somewhere behind such routines. I see this as a symptom of something larger now, and that the anxiety this nodded toward only served to stifle my work and my thinking.

I finally faced the limits of this narrative when I wrote the proposal for my dissertation. Here there could be no sleight of hand—I needed to say how I would make this project happen and that process had to be communicable outside my own head (*sharp inhale*). The fear was (temporarily) immobilizing. Thankfully I spent the months previous preparing for my subfield exam in which some past clever version of myself had chosen texts that actually helped me contend with my anxiety. Two of the list’s three sections were theoretical contributions on Indigenous literary theory and world theory (the latter what I have come to call the body of theory growing out of world literature). Reading these sections and observing the ways they spoke to one another through their commitment to comparative approaches convinced me that this could be a way forward. Here, methodology was being discussed, pushed, challenged, and changed—it was centered rather than peripheral. As a student, reading others speaking candidly about their how in a way I could comprehend shifted my thinking. Say what you want about the problems with comprehensive exams—and there are many—but this reading really helped me.

Now this is not to say that comparative studies and its methodologies are a solution and way forward for all of us with such anxieties. Comparison has its complications. Perhaps Amir Mufti says it best in Forget English! when he exposes the Orientalist logic in world literature, its impulse “to bridge the social distance between First and Third Worlds, between the centers of the world system and its peripheries” (20). Anyone engaging with comparative approaches needs to move cautiously but it remains my contention that there is still a great deal of good to be done here. As such, I follow the lead of brilliant postcolonial and Indigenous theorists and writers working with world literatures—the literatures of our planet—rather than within world literature (a distinction for another day). This approach has allowed me to embrace what I observe to be literary study’s processual nature, a recognition that our readings are necessarily incomplete. Our work is always in process and while there needs to be vigilance here, there can also be kindness and generosity.

Ironically enough, the contribution my dissertation seeks to make is primarily methodological. It’s a project invested in decolonizing the way we perform literary study and it asks for a reconsideration of how we, the students and literary scholars who teach and study Indigenous literatures, can do differently and do better. I do not mean to oversimplify remedies to these and other anxieties we encounter in our work but, rather, to start a conversation about them. There is a heft that comes with what we do and it’s in feeling and conversing about that weight and its various shapes that we demystify our anxieties bit by bit. My way forward has been through comparative studies but yours may be elsewhere—let’s talk about it more.

Vanessa Evans is a doctoral candidate in the Department of English at York University. She holds a B.A. in English from the University of Calgary and an M.Litt. in Modernities from the University of Glasgow. Vanessa is currently a visiting lecturer at the Obama Institute for Transnational American Studies at Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz.

WLWG Roundtable

“Want a different ethic? Tell a different story.”  –Thomas King

Taking seriously Thomas King’s declaration, this year’s annual roundtable asks what world literature means for the graduate students of York University. This event seeks to create a space where hegemonic narratives can be contested. What might it look like to imagine world literature otherwise (Justice 2018)?

The World Literature Working Group is a student-led initiative that seeks to bring together scholars from a number of departments and disciplines to discuss the world as it pertains to literary, translation, and comparative studies. At this roundtable a panel of graduate student researchers will share ongoing work that sketches the contours of world literature at York University. Guests are invited to attend and are encouraged to participate in this discussion.

PANELISTS INCLUDE:  Shoilee Khan, Angie Park, Zaynab Ali, Carolina De Souza, Tyler Ball

CHAIR: Justyna Poray-Wybranowska


IWL 2016: Tyler Ball

I attended the Institute for World Literature in the summer of 2016 when it was held at Harvard University. The program was attended by over 150 scholars from nearly 50 different countries in all. I enrolled in Eric Hayot’s seminar entitled “The Big and the Small,” which considered the importance of scalar models in world literature; as well as Paul Giles’ seminar on “Cross-temporalities,” which introduced temporal vectors to my analysis. There were plenary lectures given by Rebecca Walkowitz, David Damrosch, and Homi Bhabha. All of the professors regularly held office hours, so I was able to meet with Bruce Robbins, and Margaret Cohen to discuss my dissertation project. I presented my own work at the Postcolonial & World Literature Colloquium to colleagues working in related fields, and received excellent feedback.

Students who attend IWL were provided with a university library card, which in this case gave me access to the largest university collection in the world. Needless to say, I felt as though I’d died and gone to heaven. I used this opportunity to conduct research for a now published article, entitled “Sof’town Slueths: The Hard-Boiled Genre Goes to Jo’burg.”

Although the IWL is a valuable intellectual space, it isn’t just a place for research; there is plenty of opportunity to make connections and have some fun in the process. A short train ride away from Boston are the towns of Gloucester, Amherst and Concord—home to Charles Olson, Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau, to name but a few. My personal highlight, in this regard, was swimming in Walden Pond before taking a nap in the shade of Emerson’s garden—an experience I will not soon forget!