Hi there! My name is Graham Liddell, and I am finishing up my first year as a Visiting Assistant Professor in the English department here at Hope College. In addition to teaching college writing, I teach courses in world literature.

Just what is world literature? It can be difficult to define without wading into decades-old debates. For our purposes, I’ll say that world literature is typically understood to mean works written by authors hailing from outside the United States, Canada, the British Isles, New Zealand, and Australia—and usually from outside the Western world more broadly.

These literary works are translated into English after first being published in other languages. (However, “global anglophone literature”—e.g. novels originally written in English by authors from former British colonies—is sometimes included under the umbrella of world literature as well.)

The two world lit courses I offered this year focused on unauthorized migration and Arab diaspora experiences. In the first course, we read narratives about clandestine border-crossing journeys and struggles with asylum application procedures. In the second, we met characters searching for lost identities in complicated family histories of immigration. In both courses, we explored challenging topics, such as border policies, religious coexistence in the Arab world, Orientalism (condescending Western attitudes toward Eastern cultures), and the history of the forced displacement of Palestinians. 

My goal as a professor is for students to find ways to relate to the characters in our course readings and also to connect the literary works to current events—the kinds of international developments that students may hear about on the news, or, more likely, see politically charged posts about on TikTok or Instagram. 

Some students may be hesitant to discuss these issues, and it’s easy to understand why. Undocumented migration and violence in the Middle East can seem like intimidating subject matter. After all, aren’t these problems so complicated that even “the experts” can’t figure them out? If so, how can a mere college student be expected to understand them? Not to mention that the online debates on these topics sometimes get so heated that chiming in can feel truly daunting, if not risky.

So before I explain why world literature is an effective way to approach such issues, perhaps I should make the case for why it is worthwhile for students at Hope College to invest the time and energy in learning about them in the first place.

The global and the local

Sometimes it seems that “current events” only happen to other people — people “over there,” and not to those of us going about our daily lives in Holland, Michigan. Yet in the reality of our globalized world, we are not only affected by these phenomena, but we might also contribute to bringing them about, even if only in subtle ways and without intending it.

Case in point: public opinion on the US’s approach to Mideast war and unauthorized migration could determine the upcoming presidential election. Administrations and campaigns must establish a degree of support for—or at least passive tolerance of—their policies, or they risk losing power. Public opinion and civic engagement thus have important roles in shaping policies on these matters, which, in turn, have palpable impacts on real people’s lives. Certain policy decisions could mean the difference between acceptance and deportation for a Latin American asylum seeker, or even between life and death for a Palestinian civilian weathering Israel’s ongoing military campaign in the Gaza Strip.  

If we think about it, the issues of Mideast violence and unauthorized migration aren’t simply “issues.” They are the real experiences of human beings who are either in our midst or just one or two degrees of separation away. People who harvest our fruits and vegetables and prepare our meals, or who drive our buses and Ubers. People our churches may serve or raise funds for. People like the hundreds of Syrian and Afghan refugees who have been resettled in West Michigan over the past few years. Or the Palestinian Americans living in southeast Michigan and Chicago, some of whose family members were recently killed in Gaza.

Where does world literature come in?

In my view, the most important benefit of world literature is that it provides a window into experiences that are not one’s own, and it demonstrates that these experiences are invariably more complex than what stereotypes or dominant narratives would suggest. 

In my course on unauthorized migration literature, students read Signs Preceding the End of the World, a novel by Mexican author Yuri Herrera that tells a very different kind of border-crossing story than what students might expect. The main character, Makina, does not cross into the United States to seek a better life for herself, but rather to find her brother and bring him back to Mexico, as if to save him. 

In Herrera’s wonderfully allegorical prose, the Northern domain of “the anglos” is depicted not as a land of opportunity, but as a wasteland in which border crossers’ bodies and souls are at risk of being irrevocably lost to labor exploitation and forced assimilation. Herrera likens the personal transformation that happens to some migrants after they’ve left home to a kind of death—a passage into the underworld.

Alongside Herrera, students read selections from anthropologist Jason De León’s book The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail, through which they learn about the history of US border policies and the migrants who subvert them. My hope is that students make connections between the experiences of the fictional character Makina and those of the real-life migrants De León writes about—some of whom literally die on the “migrant trail.” These connections may trigger a newfound awareness about the stakes of ongoing political debates over undocumented migration.

Clandestine migration is a process that sometimes involves the literal destruction of one’s identity papers, and it typically requires migrants to conceal their presence at least some of the time. The fear is that this secrecy will result in erasure—the disappearance of migrants’ identities along with their IDs. How, then, might the lives of undocumented people be documented, their stories heard and valued? I argue that literature is one important solution to this problem: fictional works about unauthorized migrants can speak in ways that migrants themselves are often prevented from speaking in real life.

Not ‘humanization,’ but engagement

One important caveat: I caution against the idea that world literature “humanizes” the characters it depicts for its English-language audiences. In the language of humanization, there is the subtle, absurd suggestion that it is Western readers’ recognition of non-Western characters—and by extension their real-world counterparts—that makes them human.

For me, the goal of world literature is less about recognition than about possibilities for engagement in response to reading it. Such engagement can take various forms. It might look like making an active effort to learn more about a given topic of international significance—perhaps by watching documentaries or reading other books. It might involve connecting with a community organization or taking part in advocacy initiatives. Or it might mean learning the language that a certain work of world literature was originally written in.

My own engagement often takes the form of translation in an endeavor to make works of contemporary Arabic literature accessible to broader audiences. In graduate school, I had the opportunity to edit an edition of the literary translation journal Absinthe. The issue, which can be read online here, is entitled Orphaned of Light and features recent migration-related short stories, essays, passages from novels, and poetry translated from Arabic to English. And in recent months, I have been translating short stories by the Palestinian author Yoursi Alghoul, who lives in Gaza.

One of these forthcoming short stories, “A Life Dipped in Blood,” was written and is set during the ongoing war. The piece invites readers into the inner lives of Palestinians who are currently undergoing the horrors of bombardment and blockade. Alghoul’s work is a stunning example of world literature’s ability to facilitate visceral encounters between people who are separated by impassable borders—in ways that headlines and social media posts never could.

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1 Comment

  1. Professor Liddell’s insight into the importance of world literature is compelling and enlightening. This article beautifully underscores the universal power of storytelling to bridge cultures and broaden perspectives.

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