What is “World Literature”?

What exactly do we mean by “world literature”? It carries with it two possible meanings. First, it may refer to the vast literary production across the world; second, it might only contain what is deemed “the best” of what the world’s literature can offer. In reality, world literature subscribes to both definitions and so one can imagine the internal contradiction of the phrase “world literature”—it is inclusive of all literary works produced across time and space and yet the phrase is also rigid in selecting what works can be deemed truly representative of the literature of the world.

One thing that is constant if we are to survey the literature of the world across the premodern age to the 21st century is that humanity has an unquenchable thirst for self-expression that has led them to immortalize the human experience through a rich variety of literary production. World literature is the story of us as a species.

The phrase “world literature” comes from the German scholar and poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s phrase Weltliteratur. In 1827, Goethe (GUEH-teh) told his disciple Johann Peter Eckermann that “[n]ational literature is no longer of importance. It is time for world literature.” In his use of this phrase, Goethe envisioned literature that is truly global in scope but deeply rooted in the Indo-European classics, especially those of Ancient Greece.

From the mid-1990s, scholars of literary study have gone back to Goethe’s concept ofWeltliteratur to make sense of the increasingly global characteristic of literary works being written. Since the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the world has become increasingly global in terms of economic aspects and people exchange (i.e., people travel more or migrate overseas), thus resulting in a greater experience of cultural exchange. Another factor to consider about the resurgence of interest in world literature is the digital revolution. People around the world have also increasingly connected through digital technology that national boundaries have weakened and a global taste for literary works has started to emerge.

David Damrosch in What Is World Literature? (2003) states that “world literature is not an infinite, ungraspable canon of works but rather a mode of circulation and of reading, a mode that is as applicable to individual works as to bodies of material, available for reading established classics and new discoveries alike” (5). It must be pointed out that a literary text may cross borders (i.e., it will be circulated across countries) for a number of reasons. Some of these reasons include the artistic merit of the literary text (e.g., it wins an award), the political situation surrounding the text (e.g., the text comes from an influential country), or the popularity of the work (e.g., it has been made into a film), among other reasons. Damrosch also notes that world literature is a “mode of reading.” Following this argument, what kind of preparation do we need to read world literature, especially if a literary work is outside our literary comfort zone?

Can you identify at least one play by William Shakespeare? You can perhaps identify at least one title of the 37 plays attributed to Shakespeare. (If you have actually read an excerpt or the complete play itself, or if you have viewed a theatrical presentation of any of Shakespeare’s work, well, kudos to you! Good job!) The ability of Filipino students to identify a work by Shakespeare is something that we tend to take for granted, but this requires more pondering. Why do the playwright Shakespeare and his dramatic works still remain in the collective consciousness of Filipinos some four centuries after the “Bard of Avon” died? Why are Filipinos interested in Shakespeare and his works when clearly, during the playwright’s lifetime, he wrote for his contemporaries, the Elizabethans, and had no notion of our islands? 

Meanwhile, can you identify who is the poet of the poem collection Gitanjali (Song Offerings)? This poet happens to be the first Asian and first non-European to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. If you cannot identify who this author is, the answer is Indian writer Rabindranath Tagore, a contemporary of Jose Rizal. Tagore is a multi-talented artist who wrote an array of novels, poems, plays, and stories in his native Bengali language. He acted in theater and composed music. Ian Jack described Tagore as “a fine essayist; an educationist who founded a university; an opponent of terrorism that then plagued Bengal; a secularist amid religious divisions; an agricultural improver and ecologist; a critical nationalist.” For someone who was a literary trailblazer in his country, in Asia, and the world, it appears that some 150 years after Tagore’s death, not a lot of people outside of his ethnic group are reading him. Ian Jack’s article title about Tagore’s case is very apt: “Rabindranath Tagore was a global phenomenon, so why is he neglected?” Why indeed?

Shakespeare’s works endure in our collective consciousness because Shakespeare has always been a staple in our education, in English and literature subjects. There are even a good number of translations of Shakespeare’s plays into Filipino by scholars such as National Artist for Literature Bienvenido Lumbera, Rolando Tinio, and Ron Capinding.

On the other hand, very few classes read any work by Tagore. Although there are translations of his works into English, Tagore’s literary works almost never make it to our English and literature classes.

Let’s conclude this section with a reminder. When reading a literary work from a different country or region, you may need to read “around the text” by considering the following contexts, whatever ap-plies: culture, thought, politics/government, social structure, gender roles, traditions, and customs/etiquette, history, economy, philosophy, religion, art, popular culture, education system, myths and folklore, family structure, values.

Read Israeli fictionist Etgar Keret’s “Suddenly, a Knock on the Door” and Hong Kong poet Tammy Ho Lai-Ming’s “His t-shirts.” Pay attention to how both authors sensitively yet comically portray cross-cultural en-counters and in Keret’s words, “the human situation.” What particular “human situations” created by intersecting cultural traces were drawn by each of these two works?

His T-shirts
by Tammy Ho Lai-Ming

Medium-sized t-shirts on his dark body.
He’s totally Chinese—more so than me.
But in periods when he’s building bridges,
fixing window panes or drilling roads,
I think he’s from Africa.
Yellow skin is black in the sun.
Who said colours are God-given?

Medium-sized t-shirts he has aplenty.
Elated, in countries foreign, we do not forget
at home he’s suppressing his worried lips.
He wants nothing from us, but
we like the idea of giving. And so he’s
wearing t-shirts from London, Thailand,
Auckland, Japan, Finland, India,
Malaysia, Poland, Korea…
Where are you from, father?’ We are
teasers. Names of places bold
in English on his chest. He doesn’t know.
`China,’ he answers. We laugh.
We laugh. Bad daughters.

Medium-sized t-shirts on top of
Large-sized ones in his drawers.
He once stood huge
in front of a snack bar,
buying us coca-colas,
and we cheered.