Goethe, Borges, and World Literature

Kurosh Amoui

The Hafiz-Goethe Monument, Weimar, Germany. Photo by James Hodkinson.

Goethe’s brief formulation of World Literature (Weltliteratur in German) as noted in his conversations with J. P. Eckermann is well-known for scholars and students of World and Comparative Literature: “National literature is now rather an unmeaning term; the epoch of world literature is at hand, and everyone must strive to hasten its approach” (p. 133). The debate on World Literature, whether as a category or as a practice, has always got back to these few lines, notably in David Damrosch’s 2003 What Is World Literature? Yet, this much quoted fragment has almost completely eclipsed another text of Goethe’s that primarily concerns the topic of World Literature: West-East Divan (or West-östlicher Divan in German).

The West-East Divan was first published in 1819, followed by a second expanded edition in 1827 (same year that the Weltliteratur conversation with Eckermann took place). The Divan is primarily known as an imitation of the 14th century Persian poet Hafiz (as noted, for instance, in The Princeton Sourcebook in Comparative Literature); however, in addition to the poetry portion of the book, the Divan comprises an impressive 250 pages of “Notes and Essays for a Better Understanding of the West-East Divan.” The reason why these “Notes and Essays” have remained overlooked in English is not complicated: they were not translated into English until 2010 with Martin Bidney’s complete translation of the Divan (a new complete translation of the Divan by Eric Ormsby has also been recently published. I have yet to look at this new release, but the publication of two translations within ten years after two centuries of neglect suggests what a gem had been dismissed for such a long time). A detailed examination of the “Notes and Essays” is beyond the scope of this blog post, and I hope to publish my reading of the text sooner than later. In the meantime, I maintain that this section of Goethe’s Divan is a remarkable text for students and scholars of World and Comparative Literature for several reasons. First and foremost, it clarifies Goethe’s vision of World Literature when put into practice by him. Although Goethe does not use the term Weltliteratur in the Divan, the text is certainly his most comprehensive account of what it means and what it looks like to go beyond the borders of National Literatures. His specific destination in the Divan is “the Orient,” and, in his own words, he acts as “a traveler who will be worth hearing if he eagerly assimilates the ways of life of a strange country, tries to appropriate its forms of speech, and learns how to share views and comprehend customs” (p. 175). Through this romantic, exotic starting point, Goethe offers a historicist account of “Oriental poetry” that begins with the Bible and continues with pre-Islam Arabic poems, then the Quran, and finally 500 years of Persian poetry between 11th and 16th centuries. (He also touches on the topic of translation in a few paragraphs which could be additionally interesting for the field of World/Comparative Literature.)

What I would like to emphasize here is that Goethe’s “Orient,” based on the “Notes and Essays” of the Divan, is a “real” geopolitical entity with concrete borders, and its poetry could be a means to not only learn about customs and habits of “real Oriental” people, but also to identify the “Geist” and “essence” of the “Orient” and its culture. This “Geist” or “essence” of the “Orient,” that characterizes the “Orient” as opposed to the “Occident” or the “West,” according to Goethe, is “despotism.” (We later see how Karl Marx and Max Weber, for instance, take for granted the legitimacy of this “Oriental despotism” within their sociological analyses of Asiatic societies and Islam.) My disagreement with Goethe, however, is not about his answer, that whether or not “despotism” is the accurate point of differentiation between the “Orient” and the “Occident.” Rather, I believe that the question itself is misleading; looking for a “Geist” or “essence” to create some form of distinction between “Orient” and “Occident” is useless, and such a question can only satisfy an “Orientalist” will to power over the “Orient.” Of course, Goethe had not read Edward Said; but neither had someone like J. L. Borges, and Borges’ approach to the “Orient” and his practice of World Literature is fundamentally different to that of Goethe.

Borges has several short stories that deal with “Oriental” themes, characters, locations, and texts. One can think of “The Aleph,” the mysterious “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” “The Book of Sand,” “Hakim, the Masked Dyer of Merv,” or “Averroës’ Search.” The short story that stands tall among his works of fiction as a practice of World Literature is “The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim,” a re-creation of Farid al-din Attar’s 12th century Persian Sufi book of poetry Conference of the Birds. Again, a detailed investigation into Borges’ body of work with respect to World Literature and things of the “Orient” requires a more extensive piece; still, we can get a glimpse into his understanding of the “Orient” by looking at a fragment from his 1977 lecture on “The Thousand and One Nights” (from Seven Nights) where he offers his most direct account of the topic:

“How does one define the Orient (not the real Orient, which does not exist)? I would say that the notions of East and West are generalizations, but that no individual can feel himself to be Oriental. I suppose that a man feels himself to be Persian or Hindu or Malaysian, but not Oriental. In the same way, no one feels himself to be Latin American: we feel ourselves to be Argentines or Chileans. It doesn’t matter; the concept does not exist.” (p. 51)

Borges does not deny the existence of an “Orient,” but at the same time he refuses to think of it as a “real” geopolitical entity with material borders. His “Orient” belongs to the realm of imagination; it is a world within books like 1001 Nights and Conference of the Birds that belong to a planetary library. This is how, contrary to Goethe, he does not fall into an essentializing “Orientalist” trap.

Borges’ understanding of the “Orient” and of the potentials of practices of World Literature (for example what he achieves in “The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim”) does not come at random; nor is it merely due to his genius. I can think of three main reasons that helped frame this vision of his: 1) as a Spanish-speaking writer in South America, he has a fluctuating relationship with the European culture, suspended between the center and the periphery; 2) his polyglotism, and his knowledge of English, German, Italian, and Arabic in addition to Spanish; 3) his experience with the Jewish diaspora (famously, in his 1934 essay “I, a Jew,” Borges points out that “Acevedo,” his last name from his mother’s side, indicates that his ancestors were Spanish Jews that moved to Portugal during the Spanish Inquisition and then came to South America in early 18th century).

That could be the lesson for us students of World/Comparative Literature, to appreciate the significance of learning languages and to be sensitive and attentive to narratives of diaspora and the periphery, in order to expand our vision of what literature is and can do.

Kurosh Amoui is a PhD candidate in Social & Political Thought at York University, Canada, where his in-progress dissertation is entitled “Snails and Snakes: the Esoteric, the Islamicate, and Contemporary Counter Culture Fiction.” Having received his BA in Sociology at the University of Tehran, Iran, he completed his first MA in English at the University of British Columbia – Okanagan, Canada, and his second MA in Religious Studies at Queen’s University, Canada. He also writes poetry in Farsi/Persian.

Works Cited

Borges, Jorge Luis. Seven Nights. Translated by Eliot Weinberger. New York: New Directions, 1984.

Borges, Jorge Luis. Collected Fictions. Translated by Andrew Hurley. New York: Penguin Books, 1998.

Borges, Jorge Luis. Selected Non-Fictions. Edited by Eliot Weinberger. New York: Penguin Books, 1999.

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

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Conversations with Eckermann (1823-1832). Translated by John Oxenford. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1984.

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. West-East Divan: The Poems, with “Notes and Essays”: Goethe’s Intercultural Dialogues. Translated by Martin Bidney. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2010.

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. West-Eastern Divan: Complete, Annotated New Translation, Including Goethe’s ‘Notes and Essays’ & the Unpublished Poems. Translated by Eric Ormsby. London: Ginko, 2019.

The Princeton Sourcebook in Comparative Literature: From the European Enlightenment to the Global Present. Edited by David Damrosch, Natalie Melas, and Mbongiseni Buthelezi. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009.


Seoul-Searching in South Korea: A World Literature Student’s Overseas Research Experience-In-Progress

Angie Min Ah Park

One mid-September morning, I boarded my flight from YYZ to Seoul, South Korea, embarking on my first, semester-long, overseas-research trip. Lifting off the tarmac, this exciting journey marked the end of a hectic summer, mainly spent completing my pre-dissertation requirements, and the start to a new stage of my doctoral study as a candidate. The butterflies in my stomach felt like a combined reaction to the newfound freedom after exams and the fear from the realization that, sink or swim, I am mostly on my own now. The concept of studying abroad was vaguely familiar to me as I had luckily participated in IWL 2018 in Tokyo. Still, this time around, the trip’s elongated length of 12 weeks and its goal of conducting my own project gave me some lurking anxieties. Nonetheless, I guess time flies when you are immersed in new explorations, and it has already been 6 weeks since that nervous 13-hour flight. This post will discuss my work-in-progress thus far, including the process of applying for the Mitacs Research Award and the goals of my research. Although my project is still ongoing, I share this post in case fellow World Literature students aspiring to undertake overseas research during their graduate studies may find this information timely and useful.

So, here we go. My trip was primarily funded by Mitacs, a Canadian, non-profit organization that supports the research innovation and career development of multidisciplinary students, postdocs, and professors. Their program includes global internships with partnering organizations and travel awards such as the one that funded me: the Globalink Research Award. I applied for this award in January 2019, after receiving a kind alert from Dr. Marie-Christine Leps, one of my dissertation-committee members. According to the award description, successful undergraduate or graduate students from Canadian universities will receive $6000 to conduct their own research projects at overseas universities for 12 to 24 weeks from a list of possible countries and regions. The funds support travel, accommodation, and research-related expenses, and up to $500 in student stipend.

The application process to this award, on the other hand, is necessarily extensive. It requires a form to be filled out, signed by the applicant’s home-university and host-university supervisors (meaning the latter has to be found by the applicant prior to applying); supporting letters from both supervisors; the host supervisor’s CV as well as your own; and of course, a research proposal, featuring your rationale, project background, project objectives, its significance, relevant citations, and a detailed timeline. I also had to resubmit my application approximately five weeks after applying (within Mitacs’ normal award adjudication time), mainly because my initial proposal for “research” included taking international-school courses, while the award criteria did not allow its recipients to take coursework, summer schools, etc. with the award funds. Nevertheless, Mitacs generously offered 14 days to submit a revised proposal, and this second proposal was thankfully accepted.

My research in South Korea, made possible by this award, explores: 1) the reception, translation, and dissemination of Korean diasporic literature at “home,” and 2) thematic, formal, or political connections among contemporary and modern Korean literatures and Korean North American literature. This short-term project further contributes to my dissertation that examines the forms, politics, and aesthetics of Korean (-) Canadian literature, reading such texts comparatively and transnationally as “world literature”– according to David Damrosch’s reader-centered definition of this term as “a mode and circulation and of reading” (5). Additionally, I wanted to observe the scholarly conversations regarding world- and diasporic- literature studies in South Korea, perhaps in relevance to the growing institutional and writers’ efforts to globalize Korean cultural works at home and abroad.

The weeks thus far have been both fast and slow. I have visited many literary sites and events, including the Literature and Translation Institute of Korea, the 8th Seoul International Writers’ Festival, the 15th Seoul WOW Book Festival, the Museum of Modern Korean Literature, the Kyobo Bookstore headquarters, and the magnificent Starfield Library, at the bustling commercial centre of the Coex Mall in Gangnam. I have also spent a few weeks exploring the online and offline archives of Seoul and Yonsei University libraries, expanding my knowledge of modern and contemporary Korean literature as well as criticisms on world and diasporic literature studies.

My goal in the upcoming weeks is to establish networks with scholars in South Korea specializing in literatures of the Korean diaspora and to gather publications and quantitative research on the sale, translation, classification, and reception of sample Korean North American texts in South Korea. By the end of this term, I aim to produce an article-length paper on the “place” of Korean (-) Canadian literature, among literary markets, “home” and “host” readers, and nationalistic and trans-nationalizing scholarly discussions.

As I am still in the midst of collecting data, I hope to say more regarding this topic next term. For now, this is all that I wanted to share: a glimpse to my research journey thus far, providing a more pragmatic view to its process than scholarly. If you have any professional or methodological advice on pursuing research abroad or resources on topics related to my work, I invite you to connect with me. In closing, I would also like to invite fellow students of the World Literature Working Group to actively share creative research opportunities amongst our members to contribute to our collective professional development and respective research. Finally, I want to thank Vanessa Evans and WLWG for generously inviting me to share my experience-in-progress.

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

Tips from a Seasoned Summer School Participant: How to Make the Most of Academic Programs

Justyna Poray-Wybranowska

Having attended two IWL sessions (the 2015 session in Lisbon, Portugal, and the 2018 session in Tokyo, Japan) and two other summer school programs focusing on postcolonial ecocriticism and on climate change adaptation, I can safely say I’m an experienced summer school participant. There is a strategy to making the most of these types of academic programs. Below, I cover what I learned from these experiences, and what I think other students could gain from attending the IWL or similar events. Think of this post as “How To” guide for participating in summer school programs like a boss.

Tip #1: Do all of your readings. If possible, do them before the program starts.

Last year, I spent almost two months in Tokyo. I traveled there to participate in the 8th annual IWL session taking place at the University of Tokyo, Hongo Campus, and stayed an extra three weeks to do as much eating and sightseeing as humanly possible. (It was expensive but totally worth it). The IWL program consists of intensive seminars led by renowned scholars and theorists, colloquia which bring together participants working in a specific field, distinguished guest speakers, and visits to local cultural sites such as museums. We met on campus Monday through Thursday, for between four and nine hours per day. Fridays were reserved for optional cultural activities. Weekends were free time.

The first thing you need to keep in mind about summer schools is that “free time” doesn’t actually mean free time. For most participants, it loosely translates to reading time. Most summer schools assign readings, and they can be quite long. (Each of my two IWL seminars had an inch-thick course pack containing our readings.) Do you have to do all of the readings? No, of course not. You’re an adult. You make your own choices. Should you? Absolutely.

If you’ve ever taught a class of any kind, you’ll recognize the following scenario. You arrive in class, excited to give the day’s lesson. You start talking to students about issues that the readings assigned for today bring up. You get blank stares. You ask them some easy questions, just to get them into it. Silence. It’s clear to you: none of them have done the readings, and none of them have any idea what you’re talking about. This scenario happens all too often, even in summer school programs. It’s disheartening for the seminar leader. It’s awkward for the participants. And it prevents you from getting the most out of the program. There will often be a small handful of participants who do all of the readings – be one of them. It will ensure you make the most of the learning that happens in the program, and it will show the seminar leader that you have put work into familiarizing yourself with the material they assigned. This is important – we’ll get back to it later (in Tip #3).

Ideally, you should do the readings before the program starts. Every summer school I’ve gone to has made the readings available to participants online before the start of the program. (Some quite early, others far too late.) I strongly recommend doing all of your reading before arriving, if at all possible. Why? Two reasons:

  1. Once the program starts, everything will be happening very fast. Your seminar leader will expect you to be familiar with the material on the syllabus for that day. If you haven’t done the readings already, you’ll have to go home after class every day and read in the evenings to prepare yourself for the next day’s seminar. You’ll be tired from class, and reading is the last thing you’ll want to do. It really helps if you’ve done the reading beforehand; that way you can just look through your notes or skim the material for the following day to refresh your memory.
  2. You’re going to want to participate in the social life that inevitably springs up when a group of academics are together in a new city – they’ll want to check out the area, get some food, spend way too long in a bookstore, and get to know new people. You will not feel motivated to skip the socializing in order to stay in your hostel/dorm room and read, and you will fall behind on your reading. But if you’ve done the reading beforehand, you will feel zero academic guilt about going out, and you’ll still be ready for class tomorrow.

Tip #2: Stay on campus and walk to the nearest grocery store.

I stayed on campus at every summer school program I attended except the 2015 IWL in Lisbon. Dorms were the most cost-effective accommodation option and were always located on campus or a short walk from campus. I highly recommend taking advantage of on-campus accommodations the next time you attend a conference or summer school program. They’re generally great.

At the IWL last year, I had the chance to stay in the faculty dorms on campus. (I don’t know how they differed from the student dorm rooms, as I didn’t get to see those, but just knowing that this building was reserved for faculty made me feel fancy.) Staying on campus proved to be an excellent decision. The dorms were clean, quiet, and had a well-equipped shared kitchen. Although staying on a university campus can be costly, it is cheaper than staying in an off-campus hostel/hotel/Airbnb. Consider also the time and money you save by not having to commute to campus every day. In Tokyo, where public transit is lightning-fast but can be quite expensive, staying on campus was a life-saver. It saved me a significant amount of money on back and forth travel, and it meant that I didn’t have to wake up early and face the Tokyo morning rush hour (which is a whole experience on its own) to get to class every day.

There can, however, be surprises with dorm rooms. At a 2017 summer school, I signed up for a shared dorm room and was assigned a roommate. Upon arrival at the dorms, I discovered there was only one bed for the two of us. Cue awkward discussion between two complete strangers about which side of the bed is whose. (Thankfully, my roommate ended up being an awesome person and we got along splendidly.) If you wish to avoid similar surprises, do your homework. Call the dorm, check their website, ask around. Conversely, if you’re feeling adventurous, just go for it.

Once you arrive at your accommodation, it’s time to get your bearings. You’re probably going to want to check out the area you’re staying in, or maybe there’s a certain landmark or site that you’ve been looking forward to visiting. Great. Do all of those things. But another important Day 1 task is locating the nearest grocery store. Travel and accommodations can be expensive, even if you get the cheapest ones, so you’ve got to save money where you can. I do this by limiting how often I eat at restaurants.

Summer school programs, as well as many conferences, will often offer some light breakfast in the form of coffee with muffins or pastries. Possibly fruit, if you’re lucky. But, personally, I need something more substantial for breakfast. The brain burns a lot of calories, and eating seven muffins just isn’t socially acceptable. So I always locate a grocery store early on in my stay and stock up on breakfast food and snack food to get me through the long days. You should do this too. It will save you a lot of money, and keep you from being so famished that you eat seven muffins. Win-win.

Tip #3: Set some goals and go to office hours.

I’ve gone to summer school programs as an MA student (2013), a first-year PhD student (2015), a third-year PhD student (2017), and a fourth-year PhD student (2018). I’ve found that the closer I was to knowing exactly what I wanted to research, the more useful the program was for me.

Summer school programs immerse you in the scholarship and conversations currently happening in a certain field, so it’s a great way of figuring out if this field is for you or not. As an MA student and a first-year PhD student, I mainly attended out of a general interest in the topic. The 2013 summer school program, Just Politics? Postcolonial Ecocriticism Between Imagination and Occupation organized by ASNEL (now called GAPS: Gesellschaft für Anglophone Postkoloniale Studien, or the Association for Anglophone Postcolonial Studies), was directly relevant to my interest in animals and the environment in postcolonial literature. And when I took the Comparative and World Literature course with Dr. Susan Ingram in 2014, world literature caught my interest. It seemed like a useful theoretical tool for putting postcolonial literatures from different geographical regions into conversations with one another. Without getting into the treacherous territory of what world literature is or is not, and how it relates (or doesn’t) to postcolonialism, I can say that the 2015 IWL program definitely spurred my interest in world literature. It presented me with new theoretical perspectives I hadn’t yet encountered and gave me the chance to meet and chat with some of the most renowned world literature scholars working today. It was a lot of fun, and it helped me delve into the “world” of world literature in order to decide whether or not I wanted to do a dissertation project in this field. In addition, it was very useful in terms of forging academic connections.

I say “forging connections” because “networking” is a bad word in academic circles. 99% of academics hate it. But it is a vital part of building your career as a scholar. My first time attending the IWL, I had no goals other than learning about world literature. I kinda-sorta knew what I wanted to research, but my dissertation project ended up changing drastically in my second and third years. Looking back, I know that if I had had a clearer idea of my research trajectory, if I had known then what my project would turn into, I might have attended other talks, signed up for other seminars, and chatted up other people. I therefore think it’s most productive to go to the IWL or to similar events a few years into your PhD, or at least when you know exactly what you will be writing about, as you’ll be able to better strategize your time, select the seminars that are most relevant to you, and connect with other up-and-coming scholars in your field. (This does not mean you shouldn’t go earlier, if the opportunity present itself – I just personally found it to be a more fruitful experience later on in my own research progress.)

My second time attending the IWL, in 2018, I went with a specific game plan in mind. I had two goals: I wanted to pick the brains of scholars whose work I had been following for years and meet other junior scholars who, like me, were working on climate change in world literature and wanted to collaborate in putting together conference panels and other similar events. Let’s talk about Goal 1 first.

I signed up to take seminars with Dr. Ursula K Heise and Dr. Pheng Cheah, whose scholarship had been formative to my own thinking about ecocriticism and human-animal relationships and about postcolonialism and cosmopolitanism, respectively. Both these seminars were excellent. They addressed questions I had been struggling with in my research for a while, and introduced me to wonderful texts that I probably never would have learned about otherwise. 10/10; would take again. I did all the readings, took notes furiously, and actively participated in the classroom discussion. And when I had built up the courage to ask for a meeting, I went to talk to Dr. Heise and Dr. Cheah during their office hours. I highly recommend doing this. It’s great to establish a rapport with your seminar leader early on, and to let them know how your research fits into the themes and issues being discussed in class.

Your seminar leaders are valuable sources of knowledge – they have more research experience than you, they’ve read more widely than you, and chances are they’ll be able to point you towards valuable sources for your own project. I talked to my seminar leaders about my research and my dissertation project, and got valuable reading recommendations from them. In the relative privacy of office hours, I also got to ask them about their views on certain key scholarly issues, and got to hear their personal, un-filtered takes on some of the dominant research in the field – this was priceless, and often hilarious. In preparation for each meeting, I read up on the most recent book or article they published. I recommend doing this too, because it’s useful to know what a certain scholar has been thinking about recently. It helps you understand their critical position, and lets you place yourself in relation to what they’re currently interested in.

I had some specific things that I wanted to accomplish during IWL 2018, and it meant that I had to use my time there effectively. In addition to taking full advantage of seminar leaders’ office hours, I also spent a lot more time getting to know my fellow participants. This contributed to Goal 2. I made connections with early career scholars working all over the world, many of whom I still speak with regularly. We’ve gone to conferences together, proposed panels together, shared CFPs and job calls that are relevant to our respective fields, and established a group chat which is still going strong. These types of connections are invaluable in grad school and after grad school. For one thing, your summer school friends keep you sane when your normal friends (i.e. your friends who are not pursuing lengthy and impractical degrees) cannot understand what you’re doing or why you’re doing it. For another, they’re useful professional connections.

It’s imperative to know people beyond your program and your institution: they can alert you to vacancies and important upcoming conference in their region, tell you about the job market situation and application conventions in their country, and give you valuable perspective on your own grad school experience. I learned through my conversations with my IWL friends how differently PhD programs work in different parts of the world, and how vastly different expectations can be. Did you know that in some countries, PhD students are thought of as 9-to-5 workers, and are expected to be on campus five days a week? Did you know that there are no exams or dissertation defenses in some PhD programs? Did you know that in some countries, your dissertation isn’t considered “defended” until it has been published as a monograph? It’s wild. So talk to your summer school program friends. Talk to them about the job market. Talk to them about doing collaborative work. Talk to them about future research goals and funding opportunities. They’re full of useful information.

Tip #4: If they fund you, you should go

My final tip is tricky because it involves making big financial decisions. If you can afford it and if your institution can cover your tuition and (at least part of) the costs of the trip, you should definitely go. Some institutions have an easier time funding their students, and this contributes to the disparity in who gets to participate in these types of events and the conversations that transpire there, and who doesn’t – who gets to be at the table, and who doesn’t, as Dr. Ingram says. Some of the participants I spoke with at the IWL were self-funded; their institution couldn’t afford to send them, but they saved money and covered their own expenses. On the complete opposite end of the spectrum were those who were actually paid by their institutions to attend – not only was their tuition, travel, and accommodation fully covered, but they were also paid an hourly wage for each hour they spent in class, and received per diems to cover the cost of food. (This information made me incredibly envious.)

No one knows your financial situation better than you, and it’s impossible for me to give a general rule of when you should shell out the money and go to the summer school, and when you should skip it. For one thing, the financial cost of the summer school (for you) will largely depend on how much your institution can cover. Inquire about that. Search through your institution’s website. Talk to your supervisor and your program assistant. Call your institution’s awards person. For another, the cost will largely depend on where the event is held (some cities are more expensive than others), and on the types of choices you make while there. Will you eat in restaurants every day, or will you stock up on groceries? Will you be taking public transit to class, or will you be walking? How hard do you plan on partying?

Another thing to keep in mind is that not all summer schools are made equal. I’ve been lucky: I’ve gone to four excellent ones. But I’ve heard horror stories from other graduate students about expensive, boring, disorganized, and unprofessional summer schools. So ask around. Try to contact former participants, if you can. Do some research.

Summer school programs like the IWL are often jokingly described as “summer camp for nerds.” And that’s pretty much exactly what they are. They’re places where people who are passionate about their field of study come together and share their research with like-minded colleagues. I have always found them to be a lot of fun. If you’re the type of person who enthusiastically attends conferences, you will love it. My own time at the IWL, and especially the 2018 program, has been vital to my development as a scholar. I had the opportunity to meet with and talk about my research on world literature, environment, and climate change with some of the leading thinkers in these fields. The feedback I received helped me identify and work through some important limitations in my work, giving my dissertation project its current shape. So for me, it was totally worth it. In fact, I may go again. I hear they’re looking for people to lead colloquia at IWL 2020.

Justyna Poray-Wybranowska is an early career researcher specializing in contemporary anglophone literatures, postcolonial studies, disaster studies, and human-animal studies. She holds a PhD from York University and currently teaches at Ryerson University. Jointly funded by SSHRC and the Provost Dissertation Scholarship, her doctoral research is an interdisciplinary environmental humanities project that investigates the relationship between colonialism and ecological catastrophe in literature from the postcolonial South. Justyna’s work on contemporary literature and media has been published in Studies in Canadian Literature and Otherness: Essays and Studies. Newer work on ecocriticism and world cinema is forthcoming in ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment and Shifting Grounds: Cultural Tectonics along the Pacific Rim.


We have officially entered the twitterverse. Give us a follow @worldlitwg so we can start the conversation!

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, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jfOuOJ6b-qY&t=2565s.

Gikandi, Simon. “Simon Gikandi on African Literature in the World: Imagining a Post-Colonial Public Sphere.” Uploaded by YaleUniversity, 16 June 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x6g1pL0qTuE&t=282s.

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 angieminahpark.com

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.