13 November 2005

Textbooks for Miseducation

The way we read literature, as manifested in classroom textbooks, misrepresents the state of literature today, primarily because of the four horsepersons of apocalyptic hegemony, namely (instead of pestilence, war, famine, and death), race, class, gender, and language. Let us glance at already one of the most liberal of all world literature anthologies, then contrast its contents with what is really happening in the world of literature. I will restrict myself only to the literature of the second half of the last century, because that is the period in which I grew up.

Let us begin with that ridiculous 1997 Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces, edited by Maynard Mack, which patronizingly accommodated only four so-called “non-mainstream” writers – two writing in English and one a biological female. In contrast, the 2003 Bedford Anthology of World Literature, edited by Paul Davis, Gary Harrison, David M. Johnson, Patricia Clark Smith, and John F. Crawford of the University of New Mexico, claims that it “represents important historical and contemporary debates about science, human rights, women’s rights, colonialism, and imperialism by including texts and writers not frequently anthologized.”

The writers “not frequently anthologized” include the biologically male Achebe, Chinweizu, Mnthali, P’Bitek, and Walcott among those writing in English, and among those not writing in English, Abé, Al-Hakim, Amichai, Bei, Celan, Césaire, Darwish, Fanon, Fuentes, Gao, García, Kawabata, Kundera, Mahfouz, Neruda, Oe, Paz, Ryuichi, Sachs, and Voznesensky. The biologically female writers writing in English include Cisneros, Danticat, Desai, Harjo, Head, Jen, Mukherjee, and Nye; those writing in languages other than English are Akhmatova, Rifaat, Szymborska, Takenishi, and Tuqan.

We can classify the authors in various ways: non-Anglo-Americans (38 out of 55, or 69%), biological females (17 out of 55, or 31%), and writers writing in languages other than English (27 out of 55, or 49%). As for class, I am sorry I have not figured out who belongs to the working class and, therefore, cannot compute the percentage of such writers in the list; it may be safely presumed that not too many of them earn their living in sweatshops or as migrant workers in sugar fields. The language figures may be further broken down: of the 55 writers considered representative of the second half of the 20th century, there are 28 authors writing in English, 5 in Arabic, 5 in Japanese, 4 in Spanish, 3 in French, 2 in Chinese, 2 in German, 2 in Russian, 1 in Czech, 1 in Hebrew, 1 in Ocoli, and 1 in Polish. If we classify these languages into Asian and European, that makes 13 (24%) in Asian languages, 41 (75%) in European, and 1 (1%) in African.

Let us now see what the real world looks like in terms of languages.

The Ethnologue of the Summer Institute of Linguistics reports that 61% of the world’s population speak an Asian language as a first language; only 26% speak a European language (http://www.ethnologue.com/home.asp). The 2005 Encarta Encyclopedia puts it this way: The 10 most widely spoken languages, with approximate numbers of native speakers, are as follows: Chinese, 1.2 billion; Arabic, 422 million; Hindi, 366 million; English, 341 million; Spanish, 322 to 358 million [the last figure would put it above English]; Bengali, 207 million; Portuguese, 176 million; Russian, 167 million; Japanese, 125 million; German, 100 million. If second-language speakers are included in these figures, English is the second most widely spoken language, with 508 million speakers” (http://encarta.msn.com/encyclopedia_761570647_4/Language.html). Since we are speaking about literature rather than business, we should be able to agree that most, though not obviously all, writers would rather write in their first than in their second language. We should also be able to agree that a language with more speakers is more likely to have more literary works than a language with less.

We can see, therefore, the disparity between what anthologists – and therefore teachers, students, and readers of literature – choose and what the real world offers. There should be a lot more than 2 Chinese authors in the list; most of the authors in any reading list of world literature, in fact, should be writing in Chinese. Arabic is represented by 5 authors; that may seem like a lot, but English is represented by 28! Surely, even if we allow for brilliant second-language writers, it cannot be the case that there are more English-language writers than Arabic writers. And what about Hindi? There is no author at all in the anthology that writes in Hindi, yet Hindi has a lot more native speakers than English.

Why is the disparity between actual language use and classroom literary language preference important? One reason is literary language itself. We all know that something is always lost in translation, but few of us realize how much is lost. Here is the translation by Stanley Kunitz of the poem about Goya by Voznesensky: “I am Goya / of the bare field, by the enemy’s beak gouged / till the craters of my eyes gape / I am grief / I am the tongue / of war, the embers of cities / on the snows of the year 1941 / I am hunger.” Not bad, but listen to some of the words in the Russian itself of Voznesensky: Ya Goya ... nagoye ... ya gore ... ya golos ... goda ... ya golod ... ya gorlo ... goloi” (http://www.penrussia.org/n-z/an_voz.htm). The poetry, which is in the alliteration, is completely lost.

We all know about Chinese being not only a language that we can hear, but a language that we can and need to see. How can we possibly translate the sight, not to mention the sound or tones, of a Chinese poem into a non-tonal, non-visual language? It is the literature that is lost.

I have taken only one anthology as a purposive sample. I have cited only certain authors, those that have – most of them – won Nobel prizes and, therefore, may be said to have been universally acclaimed. We can do only so much in such a short time. I hope that, with the provocation I definitely intended, you will start to think of certain very strange things, such as: why is there no Australian author in the list? Nor an Indonesian, a Malaysian, a Singaporean, or any other one from the countries we represent here? Even if we grant that it would be more convenient to pick writers in English, how about our English-speaking writers from Hong Kong?

We have overused the H-word – hegemony – but that is really what this is all about. The conference which will take place in the next three days should discuss practical and concrete means to counter the hegemony of – we cannot even say exactly what. It may be late capitalism or Hollywood or the English language that Australian postcolonial critics love to deconstruct by putting the letter E in lower case, or it may simply be our own minds and imaginations, for so long silenced by the silent enemy, which is our undecolonized selves. Whatever it is, it must be faced – and faced down.

(Delivered at the Public Program in Trades Hall Bar, Melbourne, Australia, as part of Beyond Borders: Creative Strategies for Global Harmony, an event of the Asia and Pacific Writers Network, 6 November 2005)

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