School’s In Session: World Lit


–Stock photo by GoDaddy

How much fiction from other parts of the world do you read?

When I attended high school in Kentucky in the late seventies, my English class reading lists were very traditional—as in traditionally Euro/America-centric. They were replete with Shakespeare, Dickens, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, etc. But there were outliers like John Irving’s The World According to Garp, which from my sixteen-year-old point of view was delightfully scandalous. (It was the seventies, right?) Around that time I also picked up a Harold Robbins book or two from my parents’ shelves, though to be fair, that’s also where I first discovered MacBeth.

In school we also read Dostoyevsky and Chekhov (Russian), Ibsen (Norwegian), Kafka (Austrian), Plato (Greek), as well as the epic poems, Beowulf (Anglo-Saxon), and Song of Roland (French). Most everything else was either American or British. You see where I’m going here. There was no such class as World Literature. It was just English 9, 10, 11, and 12. No broader looks at non-Western cultures. It was Western Lit all the way.

College for me was a Bachelor of Science in business degree, and so my fiction reading was purely off-syllabus, featuring Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, Michael Crichton, Ken Follett, Stephen King, Peter Straub, and…Tennessee Williams.

You can see that I didn’t have a very deep well to draw from at the beginning of my writerly education. And while there have been many great writers whose own influences were decidedly geographically and culturally limited, anyone can now overcome those limitations easily: Internet lists, free online lectures and podcasts, discussions with other writers either in person or on social media, networked libraries. I lucked out and got to meet and listen to a number of established writers when I worked at my university’s public radio station, and later took writing classes. And I can’t tell you how many of my husband’s publishing and academic colleagues gave me recommendations when I asked. I devoured books by Gariel Garcia Márquez, Isabel Allende, Umberto Eco (okay, he’s Italian, but he counts), Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, Haruki Murakami, Henning Mankell, Isak Dinesen, Salman Rushdie, Chinua Achebe, and others, others, others.

While I’ve never set my work in a country besides this one, that doesn’t mean I haven’t been influenced by those writers from other cultures. That’s one of the things that’s so attractive and important about novels and stories, isn’t it? We can immerse ourselves in the unfamiliar in ways that we can’t by watching a film or staring at photographs. The communication between a writer and a reader is intimate, and builds understanding. Understanding is something every writer needs to have buckets of.

This week I’m putting together a World Literature reading list for my son’s senior year of high school. I’ve been stunned to see that many of the high school World Lit lists online still lean very heavily on Western culture. That’s a very narrow definition of world. I want him to know just how rich in stories the whole world is.

What books would be on your World Literature list?



13 thoughts on “School’s In Session: World Lit

  1. When anime entered my teenaged life, it was utterly fascinating to me. The tropes are different from western TV.The character stocks are different. It’s deeply emotional. It embraces tragic endings and the big picture instead of happily ever after. Even if you don’t get into reading the books, watch a little anime. It’s so good.

    • We are big anime fans at our house, and you describe it very accurately, Kessie. Among our very favorites are Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle, and Spirited Away.

      Are you a dark fiction fan? One of my very favorite graphic novels is Dark Water, by Koji Suzuki. Though I didn’t care much for the American film version.

  2. I don’t think I’d make a recommendation.

    There’s so much western literature I’ll never get to read, so why would I want to neglect it in favor of the thoughts of foreign writers and thinkers who really won’t have much of an impact on my life anyway? I read as much of Mishima as I could get hold of in college: his novels and short stories. I cannot really say that he impacted my life. In fact, my conclusion after reading his works is that the guy was a nut, misled, and angry. He wrote of things that did not affect me as a westerner, such as the cycles of reincarnation–and you had to be quick to catch that that’s what’s going on. There’s STILL no place in my life for reincarnation. I wasted my time. Russian novels again added nothing to me because the Russian novelists had to hide much of their own convictions and views so that the Czar’s baddies or the Communist NKVD wouldn’t come calling. So what can I trust about Russian novelists? Not much, apparently. I read the first quarter of one (Asian) Indian novel about six times–gave up on it because I couldn’t pick up on the subtleties of the cultural context.

    So, I hope there’s someone who’s able to give you the assistance you wish. As for me, I will take a loaf of bread, a jug of Pepsi, and James Scott Bell or Nelson Demille or Michener or Tom Clancy, under the elm tree if the mosquitoes aren’t too bad.

  3. I have a degree in anthropology, so I’m afraid my cultural education was through non-fiction. One book that opened my eyes was Colin Turnbull’s The Forest People, about a pygmy tribe in the Congo. He’s an engaging writer, who was able to not only show his own awe at the culture that considered their forest/jungle to be The World and their god, but also the awe of a pygmy who travelled outside of the forest for the first time. This shows very clearly how one’s environment moulds one’s mind and one’s culture. It’s one of the first books an anthropology student will read, and I highly recommend it.

    I also read Carlos Castaneda as part of my anthropological education. The Teaching of Don Juan may be partially fiction – there are critics who say the book is all fiction. It can be difficult to believe some of the things that happened to the author while under the influence of peyote. But the first book, at least, is interesting, and gives a windo into a different culture’s spiritual practices.

    I’d also recommend reading translations of folk tales, origin stories, oral histories, and such from various parts of the world.

    I’m afraid I don’t read much world fiction at this time. In high school and university classes, I read Ibsen and Chekov along with Shakespeare. I think the problem with reading world fiction is, if you only understand English, you have to read much of it in translation. And different translations can often change the meaning of what you’re reading. (You can compare the newer ‘translations’ of Shakespeare with the original, and with the bawdlerized versions, and see what I mean.)

    All that said, if you like reading fantasy, my nephew tells me the books by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski – the Witcher series, which has been turned into a video game – are quite good. He gave me a couple of the books, which are on my TBR pile.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful contribution, BJ. I can’t wait to get hold of The Forest People. I predict my son will be as fascinated as I. You make a good point about translations. I try to make sure we get editions with translators’ notes as well as commentary on the translations, as available.

  4. My education is in business, but I did read a lot of the classics. But that was then and this is now, what business people call a sunk cost. Now, we can read mystery/thriller/suspense books from around the world and even see some on television. Netflix has series from England, Whales, Scandinavia, Australia, and France. The selection of overseas written material is even wider.
    I’m currently reading Mexican mysteries. This is just as interesting as the classics and my even be more relevant for TKZ faithful.

    • As a writer, I can’t think of anything I’ve read as sunk cost. Everything I’ve read–from cereal boxes as a kid, to architecture books, to Nancy Drew books, and the writings of James Dickey, Margaret Atwood, and Stephen King, et al–somehow informs my work. I would argue that readers also benefit greatly from reading many genres from all historical periods. No matter what my forum, I would no more recommend that a writer or reader read only contemporary mysteries than I would suggest that a vegetarian eat only spinach.

      I’m a huge fan of foreign mystery films and tv series, and have been particularly impressed by Scandinavian offerings. There are many brilliant Korean and Japanese films I’d recommend as well.

      Please do share the titles of those Mexican mysteries!

      • Maybe I wasn’t as clear as I should have been. Sunk cost does mean wasted time. It only means that an opportunity has passed. I thought I was implying that we should focus on the present.

  5. I love world lit. I have a soft spot for Japanese fiction, which is probably an outgrowth of my love of Japanese movies. I LOVE Murakami, although IMO he peaked with The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. If it’s crime fiction you’re after there’s plenty out of Japan, too. I am waiting on Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama from my library. Others I suggest trying are Keigo Higashino, Fuminori Nakayama, Seicho Matsumoto, Miyuki Miyabe, and more. Not sure if she would be appropriate for high school, but Natsuo Kirino is definitely worth looking at. She’s quite prolific and well regarded in Japan, but very little of her work has been translated into English. Her books are engrossing, but harsh. Do not read them if you’re looking for a sweetness and light vision of the world. If you want to read a westerner’s pov of a crime story set in Japan you could try Mo Hayder’s The Devil of Nanking. Switching cultures and genres try Nnedi Okorafor. She was born in the US to Nigerian immigrant parents, and her works are frequently set in Africa and use traditional African elements. While The Shining Girls may be set in the US, Lauren Beukes is South African. That’s just a sliver. Hope you find more.

    • What a rich, fascinating list, Catfriend. Thank you.

      My son is definitely a Japanophile, and he is saving to make a trip there on his own (though I really want to go too). I can’t wait to dig into Higashino’s work myself, and check out Kirino’s available work. We are no strangers to dark fiction in our house.

      I also love Japanese ghost stories–particularly folk collections. Deliciously terrifying ways that Western ghost stories can’t touch.

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