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?

 

 

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Diversity, Micro-Aggression and Cultural Appropriation

One of the main themes of the recent SCBWI conference I attended was diversity in children’s literature (or rather its lack thereof!). Even though all the sessions I attended were directed towards children and YA authors, the key issues and concerns are  applicable across genres and age groups – namely how to incorporate diversity in the books we write, and how to do so in an appropriate way (that is, in ways that avoid cultural appropriation as well as what the editors termed ‘micro-aggressions’ in the books we write).

I hadn’t heard the term ‘micro-agression’ before when it came to books but the term is really about the cliches, characterizations or expressions writers can fall into (often without thinking) that perpetuate cultural stereotypes. In one of the first-page sessions the editors pointed out some of these ‘micro-aggressions’ in phrases such as sitting ‘Indian style’ and ‘Indian giver’. I’m sure in both these instances the author used these unwittingly rather than maliciously but the editors were quick to point out that, in an industry increasingly concerned about the lack of diversity in the books they publish, authors need to be especially mindful of how they incorporate diversity in their books and avoid using terms, phrases or characters that perpetuate stereotypes or inflict ‘micro aggression’ against particular cultures.

In another session I attended there was a great discussion about the issues writers face when writing about cultures or characters different to their own. The key take home message? If you write cross-culturally you MUST do your research! This includes having beta-readers from that culture to ensure that the kinds of ‘micro-agressions’ or cultural appropriations that the editors identified, did not occur.  I wholeheartedly support an increase in diversity, particularly in children’s literature, and acknowledge that writers, when tackling cross-cultural issues, must do their research to ensure that they approach the issue in an appropriate and sensitive way. I must confess, however, that after this session, given the sensitivity and complexity of the discussion, I felt more rather than less reluctant when it came to writing cross-culturally. That isn’t to say I don’t feel strongly that I should have the freedom to write whatever I chose to write about without any gender, racial or cultural constraints but, after the discussion, I did feel like the issue was more fraught than I had realized (or rather, I clearly hadn’t thought through the issues enough).

So TKZers what do you think? How do you approach the issue of diversity? Do you endeavor to write cross-culturally and if so, how do you navigate the issues raised when doing so? Do you see  ‘micro-agressions’ or cultural appropriations in the books you read?

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