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Bringing the world into the classroom through world literature

  • Published at 05:59 pm July 14th, 2018
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An essay

I left Bangladesh as a teenager many years ago and have returned to share with you my scholarly work, teaching experience, and my literary translation. Thank you for offering me this opportunity to speak about why and how I bring the world into the classroom through literature. 

Speaking seven languages, translating from four, and having lived and taught in Asia, Europe, North Africa, and the United States, I consider myself to be a global citizen and feel it is my duty to inform my students about the world.

I will argue that university education can and must help students develop nuanced understandings and perspectives about urgent global issues. Whether students are in the U.S. or Bangladesh, it’s our moral obligation to encourage them to engage with people whose lives are turned upside down by global transformations. It is our ethical responsibility as teachers to encourage our students to understand the interconnected causes and effects of issues ranging from human-rights abuse and poverty to climate change. We have an equally urgent mandate to lead students to see that these issues are not distant and abstract, but affect them all personally, even if they don’t immediately see the connection. 

Allow me now to take you to a moment and time when I first understood the urgency of bringing global awareness into the writing and literature classroom through both research and world literature. It was the beginning of the 2012 spring semester. A frigid January day, a short time after Mohamed Bouazizi took his life in Tunisia through self-immolation and set off the spark that triggered the Arab Spring revolt in the Middle East and North Africa.

I walked into my Stony Brook University writing classroom that dark January morning and asked my students what they thought about the young Tunisian man’s self-immolation. They looked at me with blank eyes. They had no idea what I was talking about. 

About a month later, as thousands of Egyptians gathered on Tahrir Square in Cairo and the world watched on television vast protests against tyranny, I asked those same students what they thought about the revolts. Again, those blank eyes stared back at me. It was at that precise moment that I understood I had to do something. I had to wake up my students.

I have discovered that literary fiction resonates with students, touches them more deeply and profoundly than does nonfiction. This is the premise from which I start; it is my point of departure: I want students to find their way to personal meaning in the texts we read and in the assignments they write. I want my students to connect, not in the abstract, but at the personal level where we all make meaning of the world, with the characters’ joys and sufferings. I want my students to have the experience of feeling the characters’ values and experiences as their own.

This is especially crucial as we strive to bring the voices of world literature into our classrooms. These writers offer a vision of a common humanity, of a common pain, of a common oppression, and, so often, of a common poverty. I teach in the United States, but, in all my years in the classrooms of that wealthiest of nations, fortunately, I’ve never lacked for students who could identify with these kinds of shattering stresses. These writers’ characters speak to my students with a degree of truth and honesty that can never be matched by a politician or even the savviest political or social analyst. However, to amplify and deepen students’ encounters with global literary texts and to make those readings’ universal themes more relatable and meaningful, I have come to pair literary works with carefully selected nonfiction through research. I guide students to do literary analyses of the works, to consider those works as art. I also ask them to deepen their understandings of the works’ political, social and cultural contexts through research papers on the universal themes they engage with: racism, displacement, the global refugee crisis, human trafficking, immigration, police violence, and the divide between the rich and the poor. The list is long.

We don’t stop there, though. I have found a new way to foster awareness about the world through creative nonfiction (memoir, autobiography, travel writing, or the personal essay). This genre has become appealing and widespread among writers in the West and elsewhere. Let me focus on the personal essay through which my students explore their identities and cultures, values and goals. It is through first reading, and then writing, the personal essay that allows my students to explore their own identities and cultures, values and goals. Here’s how it works as part of my commitment to a global vision in the classroom: After writing a textual analysis of a story, for example, by a Nigerian or Puerto Rican writer, I ask my students to identify a theme from that text that resonates with them personally. I invite them to write a personal narrative about their own specific experience in which they find the theme alive. Often, these experiences they write about are turning points in their lives.

  So, what happens? I’ve seen profound results. The reading and writing offer students an intense and heartfelt experience. Not only have students encountered a literary text that foregrounds some kind of Otherness, but they have gone on to contextualize the text and then make a central theme of that text their own by writing about how it found its way into their own lives. Thus, it’s all about personal connection of the student and the text.

Some of the themes I’ve witnessed my students grapple with include the racism that many Muslims encountered in the United States after 9/11; immigrant children who have over-assimilated to the American culture while their parents have resisted; experiences of verbal or physical abuse; travel to remote corners of the world and its impact on them; illness and death in the family; drug addiction, depression, racism, immigration, displacement, deportation, and many more.

Interestingly, most students write about traumatic experiences. I’ve been asked whether I grow weary of reading about so much pain. No, I don’t, because the world is in a lot of pain. It was Carlos Fuentes who said, “Writing is a struggle against silence.” That’s what my students are doing when they write about the trauma that resonates with the one they read about in stories from distant places and peoples: they’re struggling against silence. And I do everything I can to support them in that struggle. At the end of the day, I want my students to see that world literature is personal; it’s about the wounds visited on all of us, about the marginal and powerless finding a voice that needs to be heard loud.

I don’t wish to leave you with the impression that all is sweetness, ease, and light in my classroom, that students immediately respond to my efforts. I find that my students have a lot of noise in their lives. It's not just the popular culture’s noise, but also the noise of personal struggles. And this noise often makes it hard for them to pay attention to these literary texts I think are so important. It is true that after reading some of these complex short stories, students peer back at me in the classroom, their eyes often blank from overwhelming family conflicts, financial disasters, worries about grades, tests and paying tuition, and even health concerns. When we begin a semester and I describe the writers we’ll be thinking and reading about, I can tell what questions are raised in the minds of many students: Indonesia? Peru? Bangladesh?! I’m just trying to find a job and buy gas, and you want me to read some story from where again? What could that possibly have to do with me?

I don’t want to suggest that it’s always easy. Like anything worthwhile, there is love and labor involved—labor by both teacher and student. And, no, students aren’t always immediately on board with my project. But, the vast majority gets there once they understand the high ethical and political stakes of reading and thinking about global issues, reading and writing their essays.

American students have a big problem, a huge blind spot that their great, big, rich, and culturally hegemonic country imposes on them: They have a really hard time opening themselves to the possibilities of being human in ways other than those hawked by American and European culture, media, and politics. I insist that my students read global literary texts in English and English translation that often approach the world with life experiences and ways of valuing and being.

This calls them out to rethink their assumptions about priorities, community, identity, humanity, and culture. These texts provoke them by challenging their culturally inculcated views about the universality of Western perspectives on ethics, economics, politics, freedom, power, and the human good. So, how do I approach this kind of convincing and persuasion for a global perspective, for a global citizenship?

I strongly believe that the acts of reading and writing inform each other, and the acts of reading globally and writing locally also inform each other. That’s what I insist that my students do: they write textual-analysis papers on literary works and study each other’s subjective responses to non-Western aesthetic and intellectual sensibilities. Then I ask them to look deeply, critically, into their own culture. What they find there is not always pretty. And some are appalled at what they discover: economic injustice, anti-Semitism, fundamentalist reactionary extremism, and a rat race that consumes people.

My students often emerge changed, their worldviews transformed, their perspectives broadened, and their responsiveness raised about a world that is immeasurably messier and more complex than they previously imagined. New York, the United States—they’re no longer the places around which the rest of the world revolves.

I like the idea of changing my students’ lives for the better. So, a few years ago, in pursuit of this ideal of global citizenship, I developed a course for the State University of New York at Stony Brook, called Global Literacies. Clearly, it is a course in world literature, but it is much more than that. In this course I teach short stories by authors from Nigeria to South Africa, from India to Bangladesh. This last semester, we entered into the worlds of 42 writers who transcend national boundaries and shed light on prevailing aspects of the human condition worldwide. I offer students a personal journey across continents, cultures, landscapes, and other ways of being and valuing. They realize, perhaps for the first time, that the American way is not the only way. They realize that there is beauty and wisdom in other cultures, which they finally begin to understand, appreciate, respect, and learn from. Only such an education can foster greater understanding, harmony, and tolerance in the modern world.

The first story we read last January was by a Malaysian writer, about a Filipino maid who works for a rich, dysfunctional family in Hong Kong. The story focuses on the abuse she experiences and also the suffering caused by separation from her husband and child. Though most American students cannot understand such a reality, they do understand that it’s wrong. Human rights abuse is rampant worldwide, including in the United States, Russia, China, and elsewhere. If we don’t understand its impact on the human mind and body, how can we fight to stop it?

Students read another story by a South African writer who focuses on the  depression and the mind’s fragility. In some stories, parents are forced by poverty to give up their child to a richer family, in others, a Japanese man struggles with the temptation to end his life, a young Puerto Rican boy comes of age after his father is killed, and two boys, an Indian and an American, evolve a beautiful friendship through correspondence.

I immerse my students in the Other, insisting that they continuously shift from one cultural reality to another. We take special pleasure, for example, in Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s story about an immigrant family’s conflicts and ambivalence about American cultural assimilation, as well as Jhumpa Lahiri’s short stories about Bengali immigrants’ experiences in the United States and in the United Kingdom. Salman Rushdie, Mohsin Hamid, Tahar Ben Jelloun, Marcel Proust, and even Anton Chekov make appearances on my syllabus. I strive for a wide range of themes, and, though the specific narratives are seemingly distant and foreign to many American sensibilities, most of my students come to a deep understanding and appreciation for the multicolored voices and issues that evoke the world’s complex ethical, political, social and other textures.

Students listen for echoes of the writers' and their cultures' colonial pasts as many contemporary writers continue to write in the language of the former colonizer. Such a writer is Moroccan Tahar Ben Jelloun, whose work I have devoted much of my life as a teacher, scholar, and translator.

In 2013, The New Yorker published my translation of a novella, By Fire, by Ben Jelloun about the life and death of the young Tunisian, Mohamed Bouazizi. This gave many Americans and Anglophone readers the first opportunity to learn about what started the Arab Spring movements. In 2016, a major university press in the United States published my book of translations of fiction and nonfiction on the Arab Spring. I also offered a substantial introduction in this book that provides a historical, political, and cultural backdrop and gives readers a smooth entrance into the nonfiction and fiction, the novella titled By Fire. It is this novella that affects my students very deeply.

After reading about the young Tunisian man’s life and death under a corrupt dictatorship, about his suffering from unemployment and police violence, students begin to show enormous interest in what pushed the man to choose such a brutal death. Students are naturally driven to do research on the MENA region and write about Mohamed Bouazizi, who was not just a martyr or a man among the mass of protesters, but a dutiful son and a loving brother. Students relate to Bouazizi because some of them have experienced police violence, class and racial discrimination, or financial crises. In what I consider an act of moral imagination, students work hard to enter the mind and reality of the protagonist and acquire a deeper sense of a radically different political, social, cultural, and economic reality and other ways of being. If there is ever a moment when they finally realize that theirs is not the only way, this is it. Through this book.

 I began my talk by telling you how important it is for me to guide my students to a personal experience of world literature. That I help them see their own humanity in the texts we read together. Let me put it this way: I want the young people who sit before me day after day to discover reading and writing as paths to their own interior and the self-analysis where self-discovery and self-interrogation can happen. But, really, why? Why is personal engagement so important? Because, as teachers of language and literature, as teachers who want to help our students write about literature so that it changes their lives, as teachers who encourage students to explore the deep connection among reading, writing, and our humanity, we’re dealing with what Milan Kundera called literature: “an investigation into the human condition.” And, as we look at the vast majority of our fellow humans on this planet, are we not overcome with pity, with heartbreak, with outrage at the injustices and the arrogances inflicted on the marginal who have lost their voices? 

What shall our response be? What can it be? I know what I want my students’ responses to be once we’ve spent time together thinking, reading, and writing. I want my students to ask those who suffer the question that the French philosopher Simone Weil thought was the most important of all: “What have you suffered?” I want my students to listen to the answers, and I want them to be moved to do what Rilke insisted we must do if we are to be a different, a higher, kind of people: “You must change your life.”

(This is an abridged version of a lecture delivered at BRAC University on May 28, 2018. The lecture was organized by the university’s English Department)


Dr Rita S Nezami has had an illustrious career in academia, government, and diplomacy. Currently, she teaches writing and rhetoric at the University of SUNY-Stony Brook, US.