What world literature are you reading?

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Ann Morgan, author, editor, blogger set herself the challenge of reading, in one year, a book from every country of the world.   Her goal, which grew from the realisation that, as a Cambridge graduate, she had studied mainly British or American literature – she described herself as a ‘literary xenophobe’ – was fraught with unexpected difficulties.  How many countries are there in the world?  What constitutes a country? Can a single (or any) book represent a country?  Having limited her remit to works written or translated into English, she discovered how few books translated from other languages make it onto the UK bookshelves. Rather than a literary critique of 196 novels, it was recounted as a process of discovery, analysing the assumptions with which she had set out.  The account of the year she spent grappling with this self-imposed task was published as ‘Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer’.

Since 2011, Morgan has continued posting to ‘The Year of Reading the World’ blog and readers from around the world have shared their own recommendations with her.  In March 2019, she listed Geetanjali Shree’s Mai: Silently mother, as her ‘Book of the month’, adding:

This book was sent to me by Francesca Orsini, professor of Hindi and South Asian Literature at SOAS, University of London. I met her recently to discuss Multilingual Locals & Significant Geographies (Mulosige), a fantastic five-year project she is leading to explore new approaches to world literature, focusing on north India, the Horn of Africa and the Maghreb.

At a glance, it could be seen as two people, with a mutual interest in world literature, whose paths have crossed.  One recommends a novel, and the other posts about it.  But the encounter is rich in symbolism:  the moment where two paths have intersected.

Underlying their meeting lies the question, what constitutes world literature?  And more tellingly, who decides?  It is a question that Morgan explored  inside her book.  It is similarly at the heart of the MULOSIGE project, whose aims include:

  • … to replace the simplistic and misleading grand narrative of European centres and Asian and African peripheries.
  • … to counter the identification of world literature with English by highlighting the multilingualism and the many factors that contribute to regional and transnational literary fields.
  •  … to make a significant intervention in or reshape the field of world literature and propose methodologies, training models, and case studies to support the claim that “multilingual locals” and multiple “significant geographies” are appropriate for the study of world literature in other parts of the world, Europe included.

To achieve MULOSIGE’s objectives almost by definition requires challenging many of the assumptions out of which previous world literature choices have emerged.  To challenge ‘the grand narrative’ comes up against ingrained cultural attitudes, invested interests, and power bases, not least represented by the publishing industries in the UK and US.   In fact, their stamp was evident in Reading the World:  Confessions of a Literary Explorer, which was published in the US as:  The World Between Two Covers:  Reading the Globe.

The label ‘Englishes’ represents the ideal of a shift from a monocultural to multicultural perspectives.  But despite Englishes potential parameters, at the same time, these also contain their own in-built disqualifications to fulfilling the role of truly representing world literatures, even in translation.

The related discipline of Comparative Literature begins with the premise it will be:

  • exploring new horizons and breaking out of the Euro-centric space in which comparative literature has developed so far…

For speakers of Englishes, learning any of the languages of Asia, Africa and the Middle East is another means to read works in the original – everything and anything – narrowing the gulf between the limited offerings in translation and what is available out there.

Morgan, in building awareness about what choices are available, where they are being made, and by whom, has highlighted the wider question, is ‘world literature’ truly representative.  The MULOSIGE project, in focusing on north India, the Horn of Africa and the Maghreb, brings nearer an ideal that the diversity of ‘world literature’, published, reviewed, translated from peoples and countries worldwide, truly reflects that diversity.

Till that time, a sample from the shelves of SOAS library of novels, travelogue, memoirs, fiction, essay-writing and reportage, which contribute in their different ways to that debate, also show what a vast world ‘world literature’ occupies.

Amin Maalouf, The Crusades Through Arab Eyes 

Vahid Vahdat, Occidentalist Perceptions of European Architecture in Nineteenth-Century Persian Travel Diaries

Huda Shaarawi, Harem Years:  Memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist

Cornelia Sorabji, India Calling:  The Memories of Cornelia Sorabji, India’s First Woman Barrister

Mulk Raj Anand Across the Black Waters

Lao She, Mr Ma and Son 

Mohsin Hamid, Discontent and Its Civilizations:  Dispatches from Lahore, New York and London 

Geetanjali Shree, Mai, Silently mother

Anjan Sundaram, Stringer:  A Reporter’s Journey in the Congo

Anjan Sundaram, Bad News:  Last Journalists in a Dictatorship

Further information

English Studies

MA Comparative Literature (Asia/Africa)


Ann Morgan, Reading the World:  Confessions of a Literary Explorer

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