Is World Literature A Thing?

If someone utters the words ‘World Music’, chances are the first thing that you’ll think of are those colorful Putumayo CDs there used to be between the lollipops and the tip jar by the cash register at Starbucks.

Albums with ‘ethnic’ illustrations and helpfully simple names like ‘African Acoustic’ and ‘Cafe Cubano’. And you probably hate yourself for thinking of these objects, because you know world music is at best a tenuous nomenclature, and that these objects are a very approximate representation of what it should even contain. Similarly, world cinema is a convenient label used to dump all sorts of odd bedfellows in the same bin at the local video store (or a Netflix menu). Old Boy and Amélie don’t have much in common besides being in languages Anglo-Saxons tend not to speak.

When it comes to useful classificatory shorthand, the label ‘World Literature’ has come in for quite some flack this recently. In August last year, the literary journal n+1 took a stab at trying to figure out a new category (with mitigated results, if you read the critics) and as recently as this month, a piece in The American Reader outlined the contours of what world literature is, can’t and shouldn’t ever be.

The changing face of literature, and the definitions it engenders can be seen in last year’s decision by the UK leading literary prize, Man Booker to change its rules to include people from all over the world. This decision led to NoViolet Bulawayo from Zimbabwe becoming the first black African woman nominated for the award (although she was just shortlisted for Booker, she won the PEN Hemingway Award this year). This decision was the result of the growing sentiment in England that being an English author no longer means what it might have only a decade ago.

In a ludicrously interconnected environment, the very concept that there are certain gatekeepers who get to decide what ‘central’ literature is what ‘peripheral’ literature entails is absurd. They should just be reminded that the first ever novel was not European or American, but probably Japanese: Murasaki Shikibu’s 11th century Tale of Genji. Which makes it all the more ironic that Haruki Murakami’s writing today should be considered from the periphery.

In the process of setting up Gate37 over the past year and putting out calls for manuscripts, we’ve met a Croatian author who wrote a novel in English whilst living in Paris, a Bosnian author with a story written in Norwegian about his escape from the Balkans as a child, a Palestinian writer from Kuwait with a story about an impossible love affair in New York. We don’t feel the need to categorize these stories – they are all cross-cultural and interesting in their own right. But someone (definitely not us) might be tempted to call them ‘World Literature’. They are stories, interesting ones, by interesting people. And there are plenty of categories we could put them in to make sure the right people manage to read them. But World Literature certainly isn’t it.

Featured image by César Astudillo on Flickr

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About The Author

Nasri Atallah

Nasri Atallah

Nasri Atallah is a British-Lebanese author and media entrepreneur. He has published a best-selling collection of short stories and his writing has appeared in GQ, The Guardian, Brownbook, Time Out and The Outpost. He is the founder of Gate37, a cross-cultural music incubator (playing a hybrid label, A&R, booker, management role). He is also a partner at Keeward, a digital agency focussing on culture, media and technology and partnerships consultant at knowledge-sharing and social commerce platform Bookwitty. All of his work - both creative and entrepreneurial - focuses on multiculturalism, pop culture, the media industry and social justice.

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