World literature is often understood as a category within a wider field of literature rooted in European culture and history. But a new book by QF partner Georgetown University in Qatar (GU-Q) scholar of literature, Dr. Ian Almond, flips this script by asking the reader a provocative question: What would world literature look like if we stopped referring to the “West”?
Frustrated by the idea that cultural discourse is defined by a Western Hemisphere that “represents less than ten percent of the world,” Dr. Almond sought to write a book about world literature in “a truly global way.” In his seventh book, entitled World Literature Decentered: Beyond the “West” through Turkey, Mexico and Bengal (Routledge 2021), he offers “the first book to decenter Eurocentric discourses of global literature and global history – not just by deconstructing or historicizing them, but by actively providing an alternative.”
Looking at a series of themes across literature from Mexico, Turkey and Bengal, the book argues that non-Western literature is not simply an ethnic category within the field. Instead, the non-West represents the overwhelming majority of the world, a fact which should change the way scholars and readers of world literature analyze and understand these works of art.
“I wanted to try and propose a schemata for global literature that would involve a set of comparisons between Latin American, South Asian and Middle Eastern texts – while involving the West as little as possible,” he said.
While the last several decades have seen a dramatic rise in postcolonial studies that explore and identify Western influences in culture and history, Dr. Almond says “It’s not enough to deconstruct ‘Eurocentrism’ because everybody does it.” He goes on to explain, “Even if a film or a book acquires traction in European or American circles, it does so because it has some Western element in it that Western audiences have no trouble recognizing. So instead of simply providing theoretical apparatuses for the problem which leaves the problem itself intact, I wanted to offer a practical alternative.”
That practical alternative begins with selecting global texts that are written for domestic audiences, rather than modified to appeal to an international one. The result, he says, is that “The gaze for which the text is written changes – Vikram Seth describes an Indian bus ride in his internationally successful novel A Suitable Boy, which no Indian reader would need to know – it is written for an outside audience. Buddhadev Bose, on the other hand, or Mahasweta Devi, write stories that outside readers would have to read much more slowly, because the texts are domestically produced. The same is true for the Turkish landscapes of international bestsellers such as Elif Safak and even some of Orhan Pamuk’s work – there is a performed quality to them which is absent in Turkish writers such as Tomris Uyar or Inci Aral, who are merely ‘domestically’ successful.”
It can be challenging, but slowing down to appreciate global literature from within their own cultural traditions, explains Dr. Almond, means “Different writers come to the fore – writers that don’t necessarily concentrate on the issues Western readers and academics focus on, such as identity or nationalism, but rather oblique issues which do not immediately fit the template for an international market, such as nostalgia or self-colonization.”
The result is an opportunity to gain a much deeper and richer understanding of the human experience. “There is a vast world out there, which has nothing to do with London or New York or Paris or Berlin,” explains Dr. Almond. “We need to completely reconfigure how we talk about the planet.”
Ian Almond is also the author of six other books, including Two Faiths, One Banner (2009) and The Thought of Nirad C. Chaudhuri (2015), and over 50 articles in a variety of journals. He specializes in comparative world literature, with a tri-continental emphasis on Mexico, Bengal and Turkey. His work has been translated into 13 languages. He has lived and worked in the Middle East (Qatar and Turkey) for over 15 years.