Writing World Literature in English


by Gregory Jusdanis

Are we forcing the world to conform to our own image of it? Are we asking foreign authors to fashion pictures of their societies that fulfill our own perceptions, desires, and fears?

I often think of these questions when I read a novel translated into English. Why has this been chosen, I wonder, over others in the same language? Are we reading those books that have been geared by their authors for an international audience?

When I first read Orhan Pamuk’s Snow, I had the distinct feeling that it had been written for such cosmopolitan readers. There were references, I felt, to political Islam that would not have been necessary for Turkish readers. It was only a hunch, of course, and I may have been wrong. But the wild success of the novel and its author, who has become the representative Turkish author abroad, raise the question of international recognition and the global marketing of literary taste.

Here is a virtuoso work that performs a trapeze act with postmodern conventions over the distant city of Kars that is torn by fundamentalism and secularism. Pamuk knows, of course, that readers outside Turkey might look at the novel from an Orientalist perspective. So one of the characters actually tells the narrator/author that he resists being represented as an exotic creature to foreigners.

Yet, despite its postmodern self-consciousness, Snow gives its international readers what they want: self-aware artistry, fantasy, exoticism made familiar by the western-like narrator, and, of course, a threatening Islam. It’s a brilliant work. But are there no other brilliant works in Turkey that we need to know? Why only this one?

(João Cezar de Castro Rocha raises similar questions with respect to the mythologization abroad of the Chilean writer, Roberto Bolaño, in a recent post on Arcade.)

Let me look at this issue by crossing the border into Greece. Nikos Kazantzakis’s Zorba the Greek attained extraordinary international visibility when published in 1952, hailed abroad as a great, authentic Greek novel. But for Greeks it was neither great nor authentic. To this day Kazantzakis does not occupy the exalted place in the Greek literary pantheon that he does abroad.

So how can we explain the novel’s appeal in Western Europe and North America? In one respect, Kazantzakis was able to serve these western readers an image they hungered for: a modernizing society on the Eastern Mediterranean, chthonic peasants practicing vendetta, orgiastic dancing on the beach, violence perpetrated on women – all made accessible by the cool, Enlightenment rhetoric of the narrator who is a writer with extensive European experience.

Now which contemporaneous Greek texts were not translated into English? Two noteworthy examples come to mind: the daringly experimental work of Melpo Axioti, who examines female subjectivity and who presents ordinary life in Athens and on Mykonos with vertigo-inducing narrative techniques; and the similarly avant-garde writing of Nikos Pentzikis who dissects and disorients Greek life in forceful novels. Neither author translates easily nor do they fit into the western preconceptions of a Greek author. In short, they do not offer the picture of Greek society that international readers want to have of Greece.

The case of Kazantzakis shows that there have always been pressures on authors from minor languages to write for an international audience. And there is nothing wrong with this in principle. But now, as Tim Parks argues in a recent article in the Times Literary Supplement (April 22, 2011), the forces of globalization have created a “set of literary effects” that foreground the fantastical, allegorical nature of the novel. “Anything that would require a profound, insider’s cultural knowledge to be understood is avoided.” In short, our new globalization may be demanding work that translates easily and, more important, is national by being international, by conforming to the global marketplace, and by promoting the values of (American) liberal multiculturalism.

This paradoxical situation does not apply to North American authors like Alice Munro and Jonathan Franzen. They can sketch intricate family portraits of life in southern Ontario or Minnesota and still be very appealing to an international audience. But does this audience want such portrayals from a Somali or Cypriot author? I can well imagine the reaction of a New York editor to a manuscript by a Tunisian writer about a father struggling with dementia. Would such a manuscript excite the editor’s interest or would she prefer a book sufficiently but not threateningly exotic.

I thought of these questions when I recently read Montecorre by Jonas Hassen Kmeriri, who is part Tunisian and part Swedish. Like Kazantzakis and Pamuk, he plays with the fault-line between East and West. Written originally in Swedish, his novel tries to “translate” Arabic into Swedish.

The novel has everything that liberal, western readers love: binary identities (Swedish and Tunisian), critique of racism, postmodern experimentation galore, and tons of irony — the “you know that I know that this is a novel and a postmodern novel at that.” And very crucial are the countless references to American popular culture that allow foreign readers to position themselves in today’s globality. (Importantly, one of the characters has lived in New York.) In short, Kmeriri is incredibly adept in managing the codes of the new international culture.

The forerunner for this global novel is Arundhati Roy, the Indian writer and social activist, whose The God of Small Things won the Booker Prize for fiction in 1997. Significantly this was written in English, which made it already available to a huge audience without the need of translation. The fact that it was penned in the current lingua franca put it miles ahead of those fiction writers working in other languages.

Just as important, Roy’s novel thinks of itself globally by thematizing globality and by making Indian life accessible to its western readers. The characters have either lived in upstate New York or readily consume Western products and culture: watching Oprah, Donahue, and MTV. The novel celebrates the border-crossing and identity-twisting values of our globalization.

It is obvious that not all writers or national languages have the same access to international recognition, aesthetic or literary qualities notwithstanding. This has always been true. An author from Albania or Madagascar faces far greater obstacles for global fame than those from the United States, Spain, or Chile. There has never been any symmetry in global literary relations.

But is the current system of globalization creating a world literature that conforms to western expectations of the world? Is it encouraging a uniformity out of diversity: E pluribus unum on a transnational scale? Are we, in other words, getting from writers what we have originally asked of them – a fashionable and effortlessly digestible cultural otherness?

Piece originally posted at Arcade | Creative Commons License