How to Become World Literate

What “world” are we talking about when we talk about “world literature”? We know it when we see it. It’s not France. It is definitely Africa. It might be Russia. But what about Finland? Or Puerto Rico?

And what “literature” are we talking about? Do folktales count? Are comic books literature? What about religious texts?

The term can be traced all the way from Goethe to the Norton Anthology. But when we casually say “world literature” we usually mean: books that were not written by white people, that you won’t find in your English 101 classroom, that feature places it would take you at least two flight connections to visit.

Leaving aside the difficulty of defining it, what are some strategies for reading the world? How do we become world literate?

It’s not about geography.

In our globalizing world, cultural capital moves fairly seamlessly through both real and imagined borders. But what does that mean for your reading life? It means that you can’t necessarily take a writer from one country – or even one general part of the world – and expect similar style or content from other writers nearby.

One example that comes to mind is Haruki Murakami. For many people, he IS contemporary Japanese literature. But if you like Murakami, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll like Kazuo Ishiguro (although you might like Kobo Abe). You’d be better off reading Raymond Chandler and Philip K. Dick. In fact, Dostoevsky’s The Double is perhaps the most salient influence on his novels.

If it is about geography, then it’s about complicated geography.

Most “world” writers that you will hear about in the news “divide their time” between Europe or North America and the country of their birth. Their identities are multiple. Their nationalities are hyphenated. This makes things complicated and that complication is good.

Take superstar Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie for example. Her first two novels are set in Nigeria, and they are great. They were critically well received, and explore some key points in Nigerian history. But her Americanah – about a young woman who immigrates from Nigeria to the States – is a fireworks explosion of a book. It is fiercely insightful. In a conversation with Zadie Smith, Adichie claims that her first two novels were written by “the dutiful daughter” of African literature, whereas Americanah was her “fuck you book” in which she finally wrote what she wanted to. That revelatory shift came at least in part from the tension between Adichie’s two homes, Nigeria and the US.

Research can be fun.

Look, you don’t have to read like a university professor to get deep into a book. But if a work of fiction lies fairly far outside your range, you may find that some non-fiction can help you out. Say you’re reading Edwidge Danticat. You may know nothing about Haiti and you will still find yourself gobsmackedly hooked on the elegance of her prose, but if you read up on Vodou and Haitian history, novels like The Farming of Bones get exponentially cooler. Check out Maya Deren’s Divine Horsemen – it’s one of the most dense explorations of Haitian Vodou, but it’s also a beautiful book. And Laurent DuBois’s Haiti: the Aftershocks of History is written for highfalutin historians, but it’s also quite accessible.

There are great rewards to be had from nerding out a little.

Develop your personal canon.

Fifty years ago, there were certain books that everyone would have to read in order to become a “literate” person. These days, you are just as likely to have read Martinican writer Aimé Césaire’s A Tempest as you are to have read Shakespeare’s The Tempest. (And, really, you’re most likely to have caught the Julie Taymor film version with badass Helen Mirren as Prospera.)

What say I? The canon is dead, long live the canon!

I once received some great advice from a comparative literature professor: develop your own list of important books, and know the hell out of it. This isn’t tough – remain open to everything, and when you find something you like, run with it. Read everything your favorite author ever wrote. Read it twice. Find out who his or her influences were and read all of those people.

Don’t treat your reading life as an atlas into which you must stick as many pins as possible. If you want to explore the world through books, pick a place/theme/genre/style and get in there.

Read. What. You. Want.

Don’t read anything simply because you must. Don’t read anything simply because the author won a major prize.

If you don’t like Salman Rushdie, don’t read him. Life is too short for books you don’t like.

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4 thoughts on “How to Become World Literate

  1. Sagan Friant says:

    Bronwyn, thank you for not judging me for not liking Salman Rushdie, and saying it is okay for me to have read everything Chimamanda Adichie has ever written. I look forward to delving into some of your aforementioned titles~!

  2. Kevin Hollett says:

    This is great. As an english lit grad, it took a long time for me to start to approach reading as a personal pleasure and not as a professional prerequisite, which belatedly led to a blessed shift away from the white American male literary fiction canon. Consciously expanding the diversity of voices that I allow access to my head, and avoiding the narrowness of perspective that defines the western canon, has (hopefully) made me a more empathetic person. As an added bonus, it’s made reading fun again. Also: I find Rushdie tedious.

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