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What exactly is ‘world fiction’?


When we talk about ‘world writing’, what exactly does that mean?

It’s becoming quite an established term now in literary studies, particularly in comparative literary studies – working between different language literatures. It’s seeing some interesting push-pull contestation with what is still called postcolonial literary studies and there are different critical interest groups that are motivating both. And then there’s probably a third stream that is, as it were, arbitrating between the two, because there is critical profit to be gained from both – in other words they aren’t doing the same critical work. And so there is ground for collaboration and I think some of these critical interest groups don’t quite see how much ground there is.

So the ‘world writing’ strand of interest comes out of a long-standing debate about world literature as opposed to national literature. You see this in some African literary circles, for example, where literature is often seen as the expression of a people, as providing some kind of national voice. And certainly that view is still very influential in English literary studies – Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, they all seem to have something to say about the nation of England or Britain. Against this, world writing represents a strand of wider literary interest that comes through to us from Goethe, who first wrote about it in 1839. He’d just read a Chinese novel and it opened his eyes to what was happening outside of Europe and he looked forward to a new age of world literature. So you could say the strand of world writing interest and criticism comes through from Goethe to the present. In recent times it has been promoted by people like Pascale Casanova, who wrote an influential book called The World Republic of Letters, though, ironically and contradictorily, her vantage-point is pitched very much from Paris looking out to the rest of the world. Everything she has to say about world literature she’s actually saying about francophone literature; so you still find national interests just below the surface of the criticism.

The postcolonial strand of interest comes out of a conjunction between the post-structuralist criticism of the 1980s and the rise of national and diasporic writing from Africa and diasporic writing from South Asia. Postcolonial literature and criticism tends to be much more political in its interests and focus whereas world literature puts the predominant focus on aesthetic questions – style, form and genre and whether these things actually migrate across language and national borders or not; the extent to which they are portable or whether they change or how they change in the process of being moved.

Does that mean you can’t raise political questions within the world literature movement? Is there that opposition between the two strands then?

There’s no one in authority, an Academy or a university restricting or policing choices as to what you can and can’t do. It is just interesting that some of those who were in postcolonial studies who were perhaps less interested in political and specifically national questions have tended to gravitate to world literary circles, conferences, teaching groups, reading groups. They have perhaps tended to move across because they were attracted to thinking more about formal and book historical questions, than political questions, Ngugi question about whether we can fire with the pen, whether the pen can be used as a weapon in the struggle. Those questions are definitely not to the fore when you look at world literature debates and conferences.

As a footnote to all of that, I should perhaps declare my own position. It may look confusing because my title here, Professor of World Literature in English, does not refer by name to postcolonial writing, though this area of interest represents where my career began. (I also insist on the ‘in English’ element otherwise my modern languages colleagues would rightly have something to say.) I would dare say that the name as it stands was chosen for appearing less ‘political’ or more mainstream than ‘Professor of Postcolonial Literature’. There’s also a sense in which ‘postcolonial’ carries a sell-by date. After all, a time will come when we will be beyond postcolonial. And so perhaps ‘postcolonial’ was seen as a term that would date more quickly than world literature.

As to my own formation, I did my D Phil here at Oxford at a time when there was no one to supervise me other than people who had been in the Colonial Service – people to whom however I am indebted for taking me on! Thereafter my postcolonial focus was shaped by the ten years I spent teaching at the University of Leeds, a university that, along with Kent, pioneered postcolonial studies, or Commonwealth Studies as it was initially known. I was always interested in the literary theory of otherness and so naturally gravitated to postcolonial theory and criticism in their relatively early stages of formation. You might say that my career grew in tandem with this early phase. Nowadays no self-respecting department of English lacks at least one postcolonial scholar.

Is there a sense in which you act as a personal bridge between the two strands?

Yes, definitely. So many of these questions of demarcation, or of critical, ideological and pedagogic boundaries come through institutional structures, and in some ways I see myself as straddling postcolonial and world literature structures. I’m influenced by people like Pierre Bourdieu when I say that: so much of these questions of focus have to do with what institutions decide. Here it might be relevant to mention that here in the Oxford English Faculty we now have a Masters in World Literature in English, on which, however, several self-declared postcolonialists teach. Three years ago we launched it and, despite the straddling, it has been a wonderful success story. Indeed, the fact that Oxford is now offering a Masters in World Literature in English, you might say, puts us on the map as arbitrating between postcolonial critical interest and World Literature critical interest. Oxford has become one of those places where this kind of conjunction of perspectives, of critical points of view, is very much being worked out.

But you are unusual in that respect? You wouldn’t go to many universities and find a focus on world literature and most universities are surely still studying the national canon.

You do find around the country some still thriving Masters in postcolonial literature, at Leeds and at Kent, for example. Warwick I believe has a Masters in World Literature.

What about the US? What made our volume One World a consistent seller there has largely been its co-option as a course text by so many colleges just introducing students to the idea that there is a wider world out there. Also many of the African writers who break through via the Caine Prize find academic posts in the US…

Often in conjunction with creative-writing programmes, to which the US is so much more receptive, although there have been big changes on this side of the water too, especially if you compare the structure of English Literature degrees in the UK now with the situation 10 or 15 years ago. Before, a handful of institutions offered creative-writing courses or modules as part of the undergraduate degree – UEA, Royal Holloway, where I used to be. But now there are many more such programmes, which is following the trend from the United States. I’m picking up that people like NoViolet Bulawayo and Tope Folarin [former winners of the Caine Prize] are associated with creative-writing programmes, not with postcolonial or even World Literature programmes. However, my impression from going to conferences and from knowing people teaching in broadly this area in the US, is that postcolonial literature still represents quite a lively pedagogic area in undergraduate and Masters literature syllabuses. As an illustrative instance of these ongoing interests, you probably know that in 1995 I wrote a book that became quite definitive to the postcolonial field: Colonial and Postcolonial Literature. In 2005 it not only went into a second edition, but it also still sells very well, now, in 2015.

Another thing about the US is that world literature as an approach or a discipline tends to be taught out of Comparative Literature or Modern Languages departments, it tends not to be an English Department thing. If you look at English departments, they tend to have a specific postcolonial offering; if you look at Comparative Literature, they have world literature. Thereby hangs a multi-chaptered tale.

But, yes, creative-writing programmes in the US represent a whole new trend. Nowadays, interestingly, many UK writers with African or Caribbean backgrounds make a transatlantic beeline to teaching in the US that they never made 20 or so years ago. And on those creative-writing programmes there is a real hunger to bring in African writers, perhaps Nigerian writers in particular; I think it’s partly the Chimamanda glamour effect.

And of course it was another large factor behind the success of that One World book that Chimamanda had very kindly donated a story to it and it has helped us greatly that it has her name on the front cover.

And then there was the TED talk and the Beyoncé effect. Those two together. In one of Beyonce’s videos – ***Flawless – you see Chimamanda doing her TED talk about being a feminist. Beyoncé has also now launched on to the world stage the Somali poet Warsan Shire. She was the poet-in-residence at the London Olympics and writes the most fantastically moving poetry about migration and the Mediterranean, about leaving your home – amazing. Anyway Beyoncé quoted her on [her latest album] Lemonade and that took her into a different league.

Unlikely godmother: Beyoncé, seen here performing ’Freedom‘ in California, has helped some African writers to reach a wider audience.

Danny Moloshok / Reuters

It’s actually not incidental, it’s completely central to what we’re pointing to here, that the US has become much more of a magnet that it was before, a centre of activity for African and African background writers in particular, and this has changed everything; it has ‘worlded’ writers. I’ve noticed subtle little Americanisms or ways of inflecting dialogue or writing dialogue in the Caine Prize stories that seem more American than British.

Actually the Caine Prize always insisted on our using British spelling, even when the story had an American origin or setting, as with Tope Folarin’s winning story in 2013. But this year two of the shortlisted stories were so American that we decided to make an exception for them because it would have seemed so odd to render them in British spelling.

I completely got that and it made me think about some of these impacts, the lines of flight, the lines of travel are moving in different directions from before, the vectors of creativity are different. Some people said of NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names – I don’t agree with this criticism, but here it is – that the novel fell apart after the halfway point because it becomes noticeably processed by a US creative-writing programme, the way of delivering narrative. So that’s interesting and who knows what the long-term repercussions will be? That’s where the funding is, that’s where these programmes are, and that’s where a meal ticket for writers is on offer.

So that’s one interesting thing going on that may produce changes. What are the other main changes since 2000?

That’s certainly one element of it. Picking up one thread that was probably left dangling when I was describing the two critical traditions of postcolonial and world literature and ways they collaborate and ways they compete, I mentioned that there was more attention to questions of structure, genre, and composition with world literature studies than there was with postcolonial. With the latter you are still thinking about what the real-world impact of the work is going to be, there’s much more concern with representation – for example, how is Nigeria going to come across in this work? But now I think there’s a shift in concentration from the political first and foremost to looking at aesthetic questions and concerns as themselves an expression of politics – not to the exclusion of politics but themselves as an expression of politics. That is something that we have seen come to the fore and harvests much more support. Writers themselves, unlike the Ngugi generation, are unashamedly turning attention to form, structure, rhythm etc. And that has shed new light on how some of those questions were asked before, because it’s not as though they’ve suddenly jumped into the foreground but they were formerly asked in much more political terms.

Are there any people who contend that that is in itself problematic because you are imposing Western literary traditions of thought and they are mutating as a result?

I suppose some of the senior, more established writers, again like Ngugi or Linton Kwesi Johnson, would still be concerned to put politics and the question of language choice as being a political question first and foremost. And writers at the start of their careers would not entirely disagree with them. But perhaps they are less embarrassed now to put some of these formal questions front and centre. Writers previously were asking these questions but in different, less formalist terms.

So, to use an example, I have a student, Louisa Layne, who is writing a wonderful thesis about Linton Kwesi Johnson, about his aesthetic – are there elements in his work, his rhythm, his proto-hiphop formations that we can speak of as both political, because he is saying something about Black Soul, and yet also as formal? And the answer to the question is resoundingly yes. Even though he has been seen as a political writer – concerned with Black Power, ‘Englan’ is a bitch’ is his watchword – he has always been asking those more formal questions but they haven’t been foregrounded because the political concerns that he was raising were being projected much more loudly, seemingly by him but also by those who were promoting him.

So, in a nutshell, since around 2000, I see much more of an unembarrassed concern with formal questions that at the same time are political. That’s my passion at the moment – reminding everyone that it isn’t a binary world of political questions on the one side that are purely the domain of postcolonial writers, and then on the other side formal questions that are purely the domain of those called world writers. Actually these things are of a piece with each other, and have been for a long time. However, it is now possible, partly through this coming together of world literature and postcolonial literature, it’s now possible to foreground those questions more and to stop apologizing.

Interestingly, in an essay I wrote in 2007, called ‘Rerouting the Postcolonial’, I made some of these points, and, though the volume in which the essay appeared wasn’t exactly a best-seller (few academic books are!), it received a lot of attention because it did precisely this thing: it said ‘Let us think about aesthetic questions and do so under the banner of the postcolonial, and do so in an unembarrassed way’. I also ask a much more difficult question, which is ‘Are there definitive structural concerns in postcolonial writing that allow us to speak of it as a genre on its own?’ It’s probably an unanswerable question because it involves dealing comparatively with writing from all around the world, in a whole variety of languages.

But to push that question on to ‘world writing’: is there something about a world short story, novel or poem that distinguishes it as being of that domain and not of the nation? Is there something about how it appeals to the reader, about its vocabulary, that makes it more worldly than national? The question connects back to Tope Folarin, because, as we were saying, there is something in his work that is both American and yet African. There is something recognizably worldly about his writing, or indeed about Chimamanda’s writing, which is both oriented to Nigeria and yet also really interested in a very generous, open-hearted way in other cultures, interested in African America, interested in collaborating. So I would say – although this may be controversial because it may seem to be imposing a Western tradition (but doesn’t, I don’t think) – I would say that there are certain features of this kind of writing that allow us to talk about it as worldly rather than as national.

‘Some of these stories are cognizant of the fact that the axes of economic, social and cultural power in the world are shifting’

The attempt to step beyond your own borders as a writer anyway necessarily makes you part of the world in some ways, making an effort to understand another culture, or to reflect a number of different cultures in the same story. An example of that is Ana Menendez’s story in this magazine, ‘Ghosts’. The story is set in Florida but involves an immigrant from the Czech Republic being cast back to her own roots as she comes to terms with the suicide of a young Cuban man. All these different origins and perspectives collide as they must in the lives of any migrant. Just the fact of our world being so fluid now – though Britain may currently be trying to withdraw from that sense – the sense that we all do experience other cultures and are likely to have lived somewhere else at some point, that is surely in itself creating a different sensibility, a different way of looking at literature.

Yes, I agree. I’m fascinated by the terms of address. Who is the reader that the writer has in mind? Does that implied reader shift depending on whether we’re looking at a home-grown African story, a Diasporic African story or a transnational African story? And then how is that implied reader reflected in the language of the story, how is that reader called out? Who is the you and how is the you distinguished within the story?

So that’s something else to recognise about trends post-2000. We look at the transnational location of the writers, as we’ve mentioned; we look at questions of form and structural concerns, as we also mentioned; but we also look at the question of audience: who are these works being written for? I think that has absolutely changed if you compare 1990 with 2015: 25 years on, I think postcolonial or world writers are doing something very different now than they were doing then. They had much more of a national audience in mind then…

Whereas now they have the expectation that they can speak to the whole world?

Yes. You can track this in the work of a prolific and established writer like Caryl Phillips. When he was writing The European Tribe or some of his early novels he had in mind a British audience – maybe Black British to some extent but certainly British – whereas now he has in mind a transatlantic audience, it’s very clear.

Trailblazing Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in Frankfurt, Germany: one of the most identifiable faces of ’world writing‘. Frank Rumpenhorst / DPA / PA Images

Frank Rumpenhorst / DPA / PA Images

But we still stick at that, do we, at a transatlantic audience – British, Canadian, US audience – not really stretching out beyond that to the whole world?

In his case I’m not sure but I think in the case of others we are talking about a wider world, yes, or wider swathes of the world. Think of an Australian writer like Richard Flanagan, who won the Man Booker Prize two years ago for The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Through his war themes and his environmental themes he is appealing more widely. Even though he is a self-consciously Australian and quite nationally focused writer, through those themes he is appealing to worldwide audiences.

So that’s interesting: you are including white writers within a world literature framework quite consciously. It’s possible for them to become part of world literature through the themes they choose.

I would say that – I know not everybody would – because otherwise we perpetuate a kind of apartheid in our reading of the novel or the short story. I’ll cite here another one of my students, Edward Dodson, who is writing a thesis in which he is making a compelling case – I was sceptical at first but am persuaded now – for reading Alan Hollinghurst and Julian Barnes as postcolonial British writers.

So, yes, through thinking about those important, urgent issues that pertain to the whole planet, environmental questions, questions of minorities, these writers appeal to a worldwide audience. As another example, take Han Kang, who won the Man Booker International in May for The Vegetarian. She’s a Korean writer and that is a very Korea-specific novel but at the same time, because it’s about jealousy, and divisions within families, the author has a much wider appeal – not a universal appeal because that is quite a compromised term (‘universal’ has always been the Western/European, really), but her work relates transnationally, certainly more broadly.

And I was interested that a number of these Caine Prize shortlisted stories this year are about fraught situations within families.

And all have a mental-health dimension… One of the things that interests me about this Caine Prize anthology, is the extent to which they expand the boundaries of what might have been seen as Caine Prize territory. FT Kola’s ‘In The Garden’, which we are featuring in this magazine, is set in the Egyptian court when Cleopatra was a girl. That subject-matter is in itself groundbreaking but the writing is also extraordinary. There is also a remarkable story by last year’s winner, Namwali Serpell, which has four different narrators, bridging classes, races and countries – and is very innovative in terms of structure and style. Stories like these are taking the Caine Prize into a different place entirely.

A more cosmopolitan space, perhaps. Cosmopolitan is a loaded word, once again (whose cosmopolitanism?), but some of these stories are distinctly more cosmopolitan, while also cognizant of the fact that the axes of economic, social and cultural power in the world are shifting. There’s a sense of solidarity or involvement across borders in the Global South while Europe isn’t really a space that these stories are primarily concerned with. The future is all about India and about China and Chinese people in Africa and about America (still).

That’s something else I wanted to talk to you about. Obviously two of these volumes are specifically African and we are talking on the day the Caine Prize will be awarded. But I have rather less sense of exactly how Indian, Chinese or indeed Latin American writing feeds into this kind of world writing. Do South American writers, for example, also gain writing fellowships in US universities? Or does it not work that way?

It doesn’t – the language barrier creates a different cultural and political world that is focused on Madrid and the big Latin American capitals. The lines of sight work differently. Also, as the magical realist moment is probably over, the Latin American literary cultural world doesn’t have the same power to attract attention and funding as it used to.

As far as South Asia is concerned, there’s a lot of diasporic writing from this region that is being pitched once again from the vantage-point of the US than of Britain. In Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘The Third and Final Continent’ – a beautiful story – she traces a pilgrimage from India to Britain and then to a final resting place in the United States. And that is quite a typical trajectory for diasporic South Asian writers. And then it’s also interesting to see in Amitav Ghosh and some of his imitators a movement out to the Indian Ocean, seeing India not as a circumscribed subcontinent but as interconnected with Africa, with the islands of the Indian Ocean, with Southeast Asia in ways that it always was but probably under the British Raj and the immediate post-Independence period the borders weren’t seen as porous in the same way. There is also a third development that is less welcome. Unfortunately because of Modi and BJP-type nationalism there’s a very conscious attempt on the part of cultural agencies and university departments in India to ‘purify’ Indian writing, to go back to tradition – it’s a worrying development. But the first two – the diasporic one and the move to greater transnational openness – these are positive developments and they correlate with what is going on in Nigeria, say, or in Kenya.

Chinese writing, because of the language barrier, I know less about. When we were judging the International Man Booker it was really hard to find good translations of Chinese novels.

But does the fact of there being awards like the International Man Booker, which was set up in 2000, make a difference?

It’s too early to say. It was something of a queenmaker prize for Alice Munro: she won the first International Man Booker and then she won the Nobel Prize three years later, so who knows? What is interesting is that the International Man Booker has changed since I was involved in judging it. Until 2015 the prize was awarded for a writer in English or in translation, but that was ultimately seen as unworkable and they have now narrowed it down now to an award for a single work in translation. And that correlated with the Man Booker opening out to America.

Talking about literary prizes, when we included a story by Viet Thanh Nguyen in One World Two, which is being published now, we didn’t realize of course that he was going to win the Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Sympathizer. Our distributors will be very pleased to see his name at the top of the front cover!

Is there anything else that you were thinking you wanted to say?

Maybe I could put in a plug for something that we are doing next summer which will pick up on some of the topics we have touched on. I have some funding to run a series that I hope will involve both established and early career writers and will bring in readers’ groups here in Oxford. The series will be called something like World Writers Make Worlds or Postcolonial Writers Make Worlds – it’s a riff on a very successful web-based project from about five years ago here in the English Faculty called Great Writers Inspire. That involved students and lecturers talking about the writers that meant most to them. But they were all dead and they were all white.

So this is my attempt to update that idea of what great writing is and how it inspires. Do living writers inspire us and if so how? As the project has evolved, what we thought would do is focus it - seemingly quite narrowly but ultimately we hope quite broadly – on black and brown British writers – exactly the kind of writers that the Michael Gove syllabus has pushed off the table. We will do interviews with them where they meet their readers, very much in the way you described in the Caine Prize session at Africa Writes, and talk about what concerns they have in common, what excites people about great writing. We will specifically ask them: Who is your audience? Do you see yourself as British? In what way does your Britishness come through in your writing?

I really want to bring a discussion about writing identity right to the heart of English studies. So please watch this space: postcolonialwritersmakeworlds.com


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