Thursday, March 20, 2014

On my Anglocentric education

Only about halfway through the Kalevala right now - can you believe the librarian thought the title was "The Colour Violet"? - so I'm going to use this eighth-day update to grumble about the ethnic biases of the UEA's education.

If you look at the syllabuses I've posted in the past, you'll notice that except in the cases of Contemporary World Theatre and Ludic Literature - both of which I'm only auditing - each class is drawing its reading list almost completely from the Anglosphere - that is, the US and the UK. (Not the Caribbean or even Canada, Australia and New Zealand, sadly.)

There are a few exceptions - for example, from in Crime Writing we had Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall's Roseanna, from Sweden:

In Historical Fiction we have Laurent Binet's HHhH, from France:

But there's barely any acknowledgment that the "Third World" - Asia, Africa or Latin America - ever produced any literature of interest.

And this is odd, for a few reasons. Our classes are focussed on the 20th and 21st centuries, so there's no dearth of international fiction. There isn't really a pale male focus going on, either - there's actually a good mix of male and female writers in our reading lists.  Instead, there's a sense of wariness about doing works that have been translated - as if we can't learn good prose from Jay Rubin's version of Haruki Murakami, or Gregory Rabassa's version of Gabriel García Márquez. 

Things weren't like this at Columbia. I'm pretty sure we read non-Anglophone stuff in our creative writing classes - a copy of Rimbaud's "The Drunken Boat" was distributed, if I recall correctly -  and in the wider English and Comparative Literature Department, I was kind of astounded at the diversity of texts we were being exposed to - Dostoevsky and Cervantes and Akutagawa and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, not to mention all the Greek and Roman and Italian Renaissance folks who laid down the tenets of Western civilisation to begin with.

Meanwhile, Singapore's education system was pretty Anglocentric, but teachers felt a need to ally ourselves with the rest of the postcolonial Commonwealth, so we read Alan Paton's Cry the Beloved Country from South Africa as well as Shakespeare and Austen. Other years did Achebe's Things Fall Apart or RK Narayan's Malgudi Days, and kids now are finally getting copies of local lit to study - last I heard, it's Jean Tay's Everything But the Brain.

In comparison, even though UEA's known for having a pretty strong English and American Literature Department, kids here don't seem to be getting as full a sense of the World Lit as they should.

I'm not sure if this is a UK-wide phenomenon. I was chuffed as hell when I visited York and discovered that Alfian Sa'at's "Singapore You Are Not My Country" is being studied by first-years in the English and Related Literatures Department. But the same hip young globalised crusaders who pushed for that poem's inclusion had no idea that the first psychological novel was written by Murasaki Shikibu in the 11th century - they thought it was Daniel Defoe with Robinson Crusoe in 1719. Christ.

But back to the issue of the syllabuses at UEA's Creative Writing MA in Prose Fiction. This is in fact a damn good course, and we're told that a lot of that comes out of the quality of the students who apply, inspired by its reputation - a positive feedback loop if there ever was one.

A lot of us in the course are international students in some way. We're from five continents: the US, Ireland, Singapore, the Philippines, Australia, Nigeria, South Africa. And a lot of us are aware that our writing's going to be pigeonholed as "World Literature" if we finally get our stuff published on the international market.

So shouldn't we be looking at examples of World Literature as part of our education? It won't just help us - it'll inspire the British students, too. I've noticed that the UK students tend to write really beautifully, but also somewhat conventionally - there's a clear sense of what a good prose style is. Many of us outsiders are still experimenting in our prose, and we come up with good stuff because of that. Sometimes it's a plus not to know what you're doing.

Anyhow, the Filipina in my Novel History class and I are lobbying for a non-western writer to be included in the course next year. Rushdie? García Márquez? Too mainstream, perhaps. Maybe Chimamande Ngozi Adiche's Half of a Yellow Sun:

It's not just about being PC, you see - it's about different perspectives, and new ways to write. Same reason I'm doing this 80 Books project, I suppose.

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