What is world literature and why is it important to read it?

Qing ZhuFollowSep 7, 2020·11 min readWorld Literature | Its Importance in the 21st CenturySource 1: The uneven playing field of World Literature is currrently a major concern to ma

What is world literature and why is it important to read it?
Qing Zhu

Qing ZhuFollow

Sep 7, 2020·11 min read

World Literature | Its Importance in the 21st Century

Source 1: The uneven playing field of World Literature is currrently a major concern to many avid readers and literary researches.

You may have read the great twentieth-century writers in English, but what about those who wrote in Urdu or Albanian? You may enjoy the nineteenth-century novel, but what about the poetry of eighth-century Persia? (Spencer Lee Lenfield | Harvard Magazine)

To be blatantly honest about myself, I wasnt an voracious reader by any means during my youth, instead, I found it to be mundane and surreptitiously tedious.

Perhaps it was because I spoke too much Mandarin and Shanghainese at home. Perhaps my literary skills was just downright atrocious. Or perhaps my young mind couldnt grapple with the complexities of Literature.

However, I soon began to realize that all was going to change

Fundamentally, reading literature opens up new gateways in allowing us to enter and delve into new vistas and avenues of ideologies, stories and perceptions. As an author puts his pen to paper, they set out to serve a purpose  whether that be expressing their subjective opinion on a recent event or writing an opinion piece on the shortcomings of global warming in our current world.

However, the recent economic and technological globalization has very much altered and changed our way of living, most of us no longer hold that flimsy newspaper in front of us anymore, nor do most people flick open the densely filled pages of a Penguin Classics book. By taking a stroll through the pre-pandemic streets of Melbourne, it quickly becomes apparent that the notion of reading has unfortunately become somewhat of an abandoned novelty. Although a large majority of people proclaim that they read their books on their various technological gadgets, the very essence of reading just cannot be replicated in such an experience. Cumulative distractions from notifications, the omission of the ability to make effective & live annotations, and the physical strain from staring at a screen all detract from the traditional and enchanting experience which a book may provide. There is just something spiritually different when you pick up a book, flick and read through the pages whilst inhaling that familiar scent of paper.

Source 2: The familiar aesthetic appearance of a Penguin Classics book.

After reading through almost all the stories in the World Cup of Literature, it suddenly occurred to me how shallow we have been reading. At school, we become extremely accustomed and familiar with the works of Shakespeare, Joyce and even George Orwell, but these recurring and cyclical names always appears time and time again. There is no doubt that such works deserve the reverence and homage  they genuinely are classics that should be passed on for many generations to come. However, as Spencer Lee writes in his article:

We really need to look at work thats being done in Italian, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and in Eastern EuropeOne of the things world literature has to talk about is its own uneven playing field.

Our current scope of reading is truly limited, and from past experience, improvements definitely need to be made in order to ensure that students are reading enough more widely in terms of breadth and diversity. Through each story which has been presented in the World Literature class discussions, almost all are rich with cultural and personal essence. Stories such as There was a Bridge in Tekka, Flamingo #13, and Enemy are only some of a much broader collection of invaluable short stories, but unfortunately they will hardly ever make it to the wider, global audience.

As said earlier, reading myriad forms of literature allows us to develop a more mature and nuanced perception of global issues and perspectives. Similar to Rita S Nezamis assertion in the Dhaka Tribune, there is a rising urgency to instil global awareness into literature reading and research. She speaks of her own anecdotal experiences, and details how the younger age in contemporary society are failing to engage readily with the world around us. She would ask those same students what they thought about the revolts, but would always be met with the same, arbitrary response: Again, those blank stared back at me. The lack of reading present with the modern generation largely stems from the increasing reliance on technology, and because of thus, it can cause young students and writers not been able to connect intrinsically with the world that revolves around us. By engaging in literature originating from all corners of the globe, it inevitably deepens our understanding of the socio-political and contexts from which these works are based in. That being said, there is also a plethora of universal themes which the reader can actively engage with  war conflict, racism, violence, poverty, sexism etc.

One such story within the World Cup of Literature which particularly spurred my critical thinking and interest, was There was a Bridge in Tekka by Latha. Representing Singapore, the story evoked an indelible impression upon me right from the initial qualification rounds. It was a powerfully crafted story which left me in awe after the initial reading, and the silver lining was that although it totalled at 11-pages, the story was very much like a blur. The story was impressive not only in terms of aesthetic quality, breadth of vocabulary, cultural and socio-political context, but also that it seemed to constitute that deep and innate connection between the writer and the backdrop whch Latha were living in. Hence, the supreme nature of this story means that the reader is able to gain a holistic, vivid insight into the Indian-Singapore culture at the time of writing, as well as serving as a subtle manifesto for the political beliefs and ideologies present in society.

Whilst There was a Bridge in Tekka raises numerous themes and questions, the following are perhaps the fundamental pillars which the story is based upon:

- The impermanence of extrinsic materialism and life, but perpetual nature of friendship

- The inherent patriotism of Indian women and men, and the importance of Indias independence in the citizens minds.

- The role of a wife and husband in a traditional marriage  including offset of authority etc.

- The advocating of women as a formidable force which should be recognized.

As Watson says in The Anatomy of a Successful Short Story :

The best short story is an elegant thing. It draws you into a singular experience that resonates at a visceral level, like an arrow through the heart; no time to think  just feel.

There is no doubt that Lathas story is a near flawless technical representation of a successful short story, but it also consequently allows the reader to acquire the valuable cultural insights raised above. Now, one might question the relevance of foreign cultures to us  why do we need to be informed of a culture which we may not ever come into close proximity or contact with?

The answer lies within the fact that the world is now rife with intersectionality, interconnection, bilateral collaborations and fast-tracked globalization. The causes and effects of a myriad of current issues are largely interconnected, and more often than not, there is not only one nation with the systemic, grassroot issues of poverty or climate change. Similar to COVID-19, the world faces the same challenges of tomorrow, and it is ultimately up to all of us to become engaged with this global transformation. Hence, whilst it may seem like There was a Bridge in Tekka presents forward ideas and themes which are unnecessary and impertinent, they are in fact astoundingly valuable tokens of wisdom worthy of preservation and thorough discussion.

Source 3: The modern age has been a catalyst towards economic globalization and interconnection between different nations.

As There was a Bridge in Tekka had been a fusion of Indian and Singaporean culture, the following is an Indian poem which was chosen on the basis of its unique poetic structure and language:

The Colour of Water

Rain falling, day after day,
as if trying to clean off
our permanent stains,
but all it does is discolour
this well-worn shirt,
and wash the memory
of all the passing seasons
from the walls.

This is not summer
nor autumn nor winter:
sometimes I recognize myself,
then forget.

Maybe after so much rain
all colour will be washed out
and my shirt then be the colour of water.

Translation of Mohan Rana 8.9.2008

Although there is no rhyme pattern, or seemingly binary structure, the poem is deeply sentimental and utilizes the shirt and its stains as a symbol for the permanent nature of our past. In the first stanza, Rana asserts that Rain falling, day after day, as if trying to clean off our permanent stains, though I believe that there is a comparatively more significant symbolic meaning. Instead of interpreting the rain literally as the precipitation falling from the clouds, it could portray our everyday life, and how as time ages, past memories become ever more distant and faded. The well worn shirt which Rana depict may also aim to convey as our own individual identity, and how it will always be tainted with our past actions, andeven the troubles of time will not be able to wipe away everything. Rather, the rain and whatever obstacles that lies ahead in our lifetime can only discolour ourselves  it may be blurred, but it will ultimately remain there forever. Throughout Stanza 2 & 3, it seems to highlight the state of oblivion which the narrator is in, to the point that even the narrator herself/himself cannot recognize their own sense of individuality. The poem then finishes with a stanza of hope and optimism, and the narrator is left with an acute desire for his remaining life to become free of restraint and imprisonment, but the same clear colour as water.

Similar to There was a Bridge in Tekka, the poem also retains and elicits symbolism to astounding effect, and is able to evoke a plethora of themes and topics. Interestingly, both the poem and short story seems to encapsulate ideas of memories and past history as permanent, however, Rana does so in a much more serious and vigilant tone. Whilst there can be a multitude of interpretations stemming from this poem, it seems to place particular emphasis on the importance of been virtuous in all aspect of life. Particularly during our youth, when we are lively, effervescent and somewhat reckless in nature, we need to ensure that we remain on a righteous, ethical track. Though we receive no background knowledge regarding the narrator, it also seems as though the poem revolves around a tarnished past which is not worth remembering. However, through the metaphorical depiction of rain and worn clothing, it cautions the reader that whatevers been done has and always will be done  there is no changing the fact. A criminal who has committed a crime will not ever be able to efface their wrongdoings, no matter how strenuous they try, it will only render the water as discoloured. Hence, the poem serves as a warning, caution and reminder to society that life does not offer forgiveness for everything that we commit towards, and there is no space for regrets. By taking the geographical location into account, the message behind the poem could also tie to Hinduism and Buddhism  where the religions all share common beliefs that been ethically and morally correct is of paramount importance.

Although The Colour of Water and There was a Bridge in Tekka are both artistic and exquisite pieces of writing, as we explored this term, translating literature is a particularly arduous task, and different people may have starkly varied interpretations to others reading the exact same poem. Varying trends in society means that manipulations in terms of personal interpretation can occur very easily. Whilst various translations of a particular should not be deemed incorrect, there certainly may exist disparities when it comes to the analysis of language used to evoke meaning. As mentioned by Polizzotti in his article for Aeon, the use of words such as thou, woman and great as opposed to big, girl, my, upon, presents starkly different tones and medium of speech. The former sounds ever so fluid, passionate and elegant, whereas the latter sounds oddly monotonous, old-fashioned and out of place.

In addition, poems proves as an even more strenuous tasks, and this is because many are often written based on the authors emotions and includes a great level of sentimental value. Therefore, it can be very difficult for a translator to enter that mindset of the author and deliver it immaculately in the form of another language. As Collins questions: If the poem isnt contemporary, what is gained and what is lost by moving the poem toward modern and even contemporary English? There is just such a great plethora of factors which may dramatically sway the effect of a piece of translation  perhaps an even more formidable task than writing a poem itself.

Therefore, for an increased audience presence and appreciation in World Literature, the role of a translator plays an increasingly integral role in terms of long-term sustainability. That being said, translators from across the world should exert more effort in tight-knit, collaborative and interconnected environments which can thereby formulate increased accuracy and precision when translating. Unlike mathematics, the notion of translating does not have a singular and definitive answer, but rather can be better refined and improved via cumulative input. Hence, translating forms of literature should be used to its own advantage, and thereby

freeing writers from the profound loneliness that is inherent to our work (Olga Tokarczuk | Korean Literature Now).

As Polizzotti says in the Lart de la traduction:

a good translation opens new doors and offers new vistas. It gets cultures talking to each other, while maintaining the vital distinctions that make those conversations worth having in the first place.

In the future that lies ahead for all of us, we need to become more aware of the responsibility that we all share as the new generation  cultivating and harnessing a future where literature isnt just something which has old, irrelevant, boring and mundane connotations. But rather as an invaluable asset which students and everyone around the world can all utilize as a means of mutual appreciation, entertainment, as well as exchanging a manifold of cultural and social identities and beliefs.

.It elicits a sense of singular magic and total absorptionthat grabs the reader, pulls him in, and never entirely lets go.


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