What is Global Literature?
Louise J. Shaw
What is global literature? Exploring this question during the past year has meant reflecting on the metaphorical meaning of what makes literature global. Is it literature that pertains to the “globe,” or to the whole world? Is it another way to say that literature is multicultural in the broad sense that it includes the “multitude of cultures that exist in the world” (Cai, 1998, p. 313)? Is it a separate genre or does it describe a perspective, an individual’s way of reading and thinking about a piece of literature? These questions led me to reconsider my own assumptions about the term global literature because my conceptualization will impact how I approach it in the classroom (Lakoff & Johnson, 2003).
I teach in the Literacy Education Department at Dowling College and my exploration of global literature took place in an undergraduate literacy course. I wanted to use a young adult (YA) novel as a text to engage students in reading and to provoke critical discussion so they could examine their own strategic reading processes as they learned about teaching reading. One of my colleagues recommended Sherman Alexie’s (2007) The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story about Junior, a 14-year-old Spokane Indian living on a reservation in Washington. By his account, Junior contends with bullying, alcoholism, violence, and the self-destructive behaviors of family and friends. His desire for a brighter future leads him to transfer to the more privileged all-white school in a neighboring town. Junior experiences typical teenage activities such as homework, dating, and sports in the context of stereotyping, prejudice, and the reality of his family’s poverty. He wrestles with questions about identity, family, and community ties.
This book is interesting for a number of literary reasons, including the engaging main character, the message of hope, the importance of the illustrations, and the controversy surrounding the appropriateness of the book’s content. In relation to global literature, this book offers possible insights into life on a reservation in the United States, something that would be an unfamiliar experience for most, if not all, of the students in this course. I was looking forward to using the book with them and was surprised when some expressed resistance to reading it. They said that they did not relate to the title and they did not think the topic of the book would interest them. I contemplated changing the book because I know that choice is important to readers. Instead, however, I asked them to give it a try. Although I had not intended to use this book for my exploration of global literature, I realized that the story of Junior’s life on the reservation – with all of its cultural, historical, social, political, economic, and ideological implications – was an unfamiliar “world” to the students and worthy of exploration as global literature as they also learned about the processes of making meaning with text.
Discussing The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian in literature circles resulted in resistant students making personal connections to the characters’ lives through their dialogue (Gallart, 2002). They considered questions about the meaning of life experiences such as being bullied or wanting something more from life. The conversations sometimes spilled into writer’s notebooks (Fletcher & Portalupi, 2001), where some students wrote deeply about connections to personal loss or struggles with family alcoholism. As they imagined Junior’s life through reading and dialogue with others, students came to better understand aspects of their own lives (Gomez & White, 2010). A “world” that seemed unfamiliar at first became more familiar as students recognized what they had in common with Junior.
What is global literature? It may depend upon the experiences of the reader before, during, and after reading a piece of literature. In this context, students gained insight into someone else’s perspective on the world while learning more about their own. “It is through gazing at one another and exchanging points of view in a continual dialectic that we come to understand ourselves and those whom we see” (Gomez & White, 2010, p. 1017). I believe that this is the essence of global literature.
Alexie, S. (2009). The absolutely true diary of a part-time Indian. Boston: Little Brown.
Cai, M. (1998). Multiple definitions of multicultural literature: Is the debate really just “Ivory Tower” bickering? The New Advocate, 11(4), 311-322.
Fletcher, R., & Portalupi, J. (2001). Writing workshop: The essential guide. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Gallart, M. S. (2002). Dialogic reading: Adult learners crossing cultural borders. Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association, New Orleans, LA.
Gomez, M. L., & White, E. (2010). Seeing one another as “other.” Teaching and Teacher Education, 26, 1015-1022.
Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (2003). Metaphors we live by. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Louise Shaw is an instructor in Literacy Education at Dowling College, Long Island, New York. She is also a doctoral candidate in Literacy Studies at Hofstra University.
WOW Stories, Volume IV, Issue 3 by Worlds of Words is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://wowlit.org/on-line-publications/stories/iv3/.