Discover World and Global Literature at City Lit

Patricia Sweeney
Published: 23 May 2024
Discover World and Global Literature at City Lit

Rebecca Jones, tutor for World and Global Literature in the Literature programme in Culture and Humanities, tells Literature Programme Coordinator Patricia Sweeney about her passion for teaching her specialism, and what students might read if they are interested in discovering more.

What courses on world and global literature do you teach at City Lit?

I teach four courses on world and global literature, traversing both fiction and non-fiction: Introduction to Global Literature, The Worlds of Contemporary Travel Literature, Contemporary Global Literature, and Masterpieces of World Literature. 

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Rebecca Jones, tutor for World and Global Literature in the Literature programme

What is the difference between ‘world’ and ‘global’ literature?

There’s some overlap between the two, but the way I think of it is that world literature is an approach to reading the ‘world’s literature’ – literary texts that circulate beyond their nation of origin, across national borders, languages and cultures. The idea of world literature was popularised by Goethe in the early 19th century. For a long time, it tended to focus on Western or European literary classics, though nowadays there’s usually more emphasis on literature from across the world.

Global literature might be seen as a contemporary approach to reading world literature that reflects the world we live in today – it’s still about reading texts that circulate around the world, beyond their nation of origin, but with an emphasis on how literature today is affected by globalisation, postcolonialism and the contemporary global literary market, and with a more critical take on which writers get read, by whom and where.   

What do you enjoy most about teaching world and global literature at City Lit?

I’m new to teaching at City Lit, having been a university lecturer previously, but what I’m most looking forward to is the brilliant diversity of students who come to learn at City Lit, and the variety of perspectives and ideas they’ll bring with them. 

Can you give us examples of some of the texts that you study on some of your courses? 

On the Contemporary Global Literature course, we read texts from around the world with a broad focus on themes of migration, diaspora, exile and refugees, ranging from the graphic novel Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, to Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, which traces the history of a Ghanaian-American family across generations and continents, and Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, a work of speculative fiction that explores the experiences of refugees. 
 
On the Worlds of Contemporary Travel Literature course, we read a wide range of travel writing by writers from the Caribbean, Europe, Africa, and Asia, from Caryl Phillips’s classic travelogue The European Tribe to Raja Shehadeh’s Palestinian Walks, in which the author journeys around Palestine to explore his relationship with his land, and Noo Saro-Wiwa’s Looking for Transwonderland, the story of Noo Saro-Wiwa’s return to Nigeria after many years living overseas. 

And for the Masterpieces of World Literature course, we read an exhilarating range of texts from across the world and from vastly different historical periods, from The Epic of Gilgamesh from ancient Mesopotamia, right up to Arundhati Roy’s Booker Prize-winning novel The God of Small Things

What would you say to anyone who's wondering if studying world and/or global literature is for them?

If you have any interest at all in reading beyond the boundaries of what we often think of as ‘English Literature’, or in reading texts from around the world – world or global literature is for you. You don’t need to know another language or to be familiar already with another culture – you just need an interest in literature and a curiosity about reading new texts. 

On most of your courses you teach fiction, but on the Worlds of Contemporary Travel Literature you focus on non-fiction. What do you think are the differences and similarities between reading fiction and non-fiction texts?  

It’s an interesting question, because travel writing as a genre is known for blurring the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction – though usually presented as non-fiction, some travelogues incorporate elements of fiction, or at least poetic licence or creativity, in their depictions of their authors’ travels. On the Worlds of Contemporary Travel Literature course, all of the texts we study are non-fiction, but we will still think about where the boundary lies between fiction and non-fiction, and what it means for a text to claim to be representing the ‘real world’ – does writing a non-fiction travel narrative come with an ethical obligation to represent the world accurately and fairly, for instance? How do we account for the writer’s inevitably subjective take on the places they travel to?

At the same time, there is also plenty in common with the ways we read fiction – on the Worlds of Contemporary Travel Literature course, we will look at form, narrative, characters, and language, just as we might when reading fiction. 

What favourite or lesser-known authors do you think are underrated and deserve more recognition? What makes them special?  

My background as an academic is in African literature and I think there are many writers of African literature who are well-known amongst readers of African literature, but who British readers might be less familiar with. I love Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s Kintu, which is an incredible historical novel that traces the history of pre-colonial, colonial and contemporary Uganda; Chinelo Okparanta’s Under the Udala Trees, which intertwines the Nigerian civil war with a queer love story and a girl’s coming of age, and Yvonne Vera’s stunning novels, such as Under the Tongue and Without a Name, which explore inter-related issues of language, violence, colonialism and gender, through intense, lyrical writing. 

What author (or authors) from the past would you invite to dinner, and why?

Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde – two brilliant writers and huge influences on my thinking. It’d be the most enormous privilege to overhear their conversation, which I hope would be about gender, sexuality, feminism, racism, class, politics, motherhood and more.  

Can you share a memorable experience from your childhood about reading or when you started becoming interested in world literature?

Books were one of my major passions as a child, and so many of my early memories are of exploring the books in my local library. It’s been amazing revisiting with my own children the books I loved in childhood, such as the Mog books, The Tiger Who Came to Tea, The Snowman and The Very Hungry Caterpillar

I think a pivotal moment for me, though, was when, as an undergraduate student of English at Cambridge, I studied what was then called ‘Commonwealth’ literature, now called ‘Postcolonial and Related Literature’. It really opened my eyes to literature from Africa, the Caribbean and Asia that hadn’t featured on the school curriculum and hadn’t been very visible in the library I used to read in. It also made me start to realise what I hadn’t been taught about not only colonialism, but also the pre-colonial histories of the world.

 

What tips do you have for anyone who wants to read more literary non-fiction and fiction in this area and is not sure where to start?

Start with a part of the world, an author, or a topic that really grabs you – and see where your reading takes you from there. Have a look at websites like Lit Hub (lithub.com) or, for African literature, Brittle Paper (brittlepaper.com), which have a wealth of articles and book lists that can help guide your reading. Don’t be afraid to read literature in translation – there are so many amazing literary texts in languages beyond English.

 

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