My reading used to be very limited, mostly by what I could find in my school library. That and my devotion to my preferred genres. Once I began teaching and as I became more aware of the world around me, I’ve realized that I not only need to read more broadly, but that I enjoy it immensely. Here are a number of the benefits of reading books of all types from around the world, rather than only sticking to one geographic area, even if it is more difficult, less convenient, and requires more intention.
Language and Literature are Intertwined
Stories, ideas, culture, beliefs, and worldview are inextricably linked with language. I’ve found great joy in reading works translated into English because even in their translation, they carry with them the rich and varied flavors of their origin. Stylistic tendencies, choices of structure, careful selections of details can still be conveyed by a good translator. It makes me wish I could read these texts in their original language, but since I can’t, I must rely on doing my research.
I spent numerous hours figuring out which translation of Don Quixote I was going to read and I’ve greatly benefited from reading translator’s notes as they explain the difficulties of adapting a certain work into English. A great example of that is Van C. Gessel, who translates the works of Shusaku Endo; I not only have a sense of Endo’s writing style, but also know more about how description and narration work in Japanese novels based on Gessel’s explanations of his painstaking process. Despite not being able to read a word of Japanese, I have been able to appreciated comparing the varying styles of Murakami, Natsume Soseki, and others, noting their stylistic differences and yet the cultural overlap of these vastly different authors.
Author Context and Time Period
Much of what I do in my classroom, I end up doing myself before reading a work from another country. Frequently, I know absolutely nothing about the author, the time period in which they are writing, and the events that might be influencing their story. I’ve found that my enjoyment of a story is heightened by an increased understanding of the context in which it was written.
In my World Literature class, we spend some time setting the stage for each novel, understanding the context of the story and the author. This aids us in interpreting what is happening. Not that the story can’t stand by itself, but frequently our ignorance of another country or culture can lead to misunderstandings or confusion, and spending time on gleaning some context not only aids interpretation, but also enriches the reading experience.
Reading the works of Tan Twan Eng has been illuminating, as he deals mainly with certain time periods of Malaysian history. His works of historical fiction are engrossing, well written, and feature incredibly complex characters. These stories have awakened in me a newfound interest in the history and peoples of the country that I currently get to call my home. It reframes the architecture I see when driving through Georgetown and adds stories to the colonial style houses of Tanah Rata and Penang Hill.
Who is Telling the Story?
It took me far longer than I care to admit to realize how important it is to determine who is telling a particular story. When only a certain type of person, a certain age, race, people-group, or socio-economic status gets to tell a story, it’s very easy to lose sight of the complexity of humanity. And too often, books have not presented more than one or two types of stories of a certain area of the world. We now live in an age of unprecedented plenty with regards to access to other stories; bookdepository.com means I can get almost anything free of shipping costs, so where in the past, physical access might have been limited, it isn’t anymore.
To my great joy, I’ve found that there are authors the world over that write in my favorite genres. They bring their own perspectives, views of the world, experiences, beliefs, and cultures and infuse them into genres I thought I was familiar with, presenting me with new variations in story, characters, and setting.
It makes it much harder to assume that the life I live is the normal, standard, or usual way to live. Reading about a multiplicity of lives from all manner of cultures and time periods shows me both the extent to which human lives can differ but also that we have so much in common with each other.
When we only hear one story, one narrative, we have a very narrow and often false impression of the world and the other people in it. Each semester in my World Literature class, I show this excellent Ted Talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_ngozi_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story?language=en
We give in to our one view of something far too easily. By hearing a second and a third story, we turn our perspective into a 3D image, a richer, more authentic tapestry.
Other human lives, realities, and experiences are as valid as my own. I don’t have to agree with someone’s worldview in order to value and appreciate it. In exposing ourselves to these other worldviews, we gain a better understanding of the many realities that people live on our planet and this builds empathy for those that on the surface may seem so very different from us. Yet we all have many of the same cares, concerns, desires, and hopes.
I’ve learned to appreciate the absurdity of life and it’s bizarre coincidences from reading the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, particularly One Hundred Years of Solitude. I recently enjoyed relating to the reluctantly caring curmudgeon in Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove, because it so well highlights the structure and orderliness prevalent in northern European countries and that it can go too far. The grim future of Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death presented me with not only the desperate lives some people navigate but also the extreme courage of going up against the fearsome spectres of our past. I was challenged by Cixin Liu’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, particularly in how we deal with hopelessness and despair.
I’ve written before about Octavia E. Butler but would be remiss not to bring her up here again. No other writer of fiction has more changed how I view the world. On the surface, we would seem to have little in common, yet I feel a kinship with her. I’ve learned how we can build truly diverse communities, how we work towards constructing identities when we seem to be made up of conflicting parts, the importance of negotiating with and accepting what seems alien to us, and how nurturing, caring family should be at the heart of our relationships.
So my challenge for you is to read something from a country or culture you have little experience with. And that might even be your own: my World Literature class each semester is filled with students from Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Japan, and other countries; many of these students have never read a text from their home country, so I encourage that they choose something from there for their ‘book of choice’ project. Initially sticking to your favorite genres can offer an avenue in; spend some time doing research on which people from other countries are known to write them and then go out and buy/borrow those books. And when you come across something that you don’t agree with, that makes you somewhat uncomfortable, or causes you to question your own worldview, don’t shy away from that—use that as an excuse to critically reflect on the world around you. You don’t have to change your religion, give up your foundational beliefs, or toss your worldview aside to truly appreciate and value the lives other people live. Lean into the difference and just maybe it will help build greater understanding, appreciation, and empathy towards those who on the surface don’t seem to have much in common with you.