English Literary Studies in Yemen: Need for Interfacing WLWE [Archives:1999/42/Culture]
By: Dr. Murari Prasad
Department of English
College of Education, Sana’a
The history of English teaching as an academic discipline at university level in Yemen is relatively recent – or as old as the inception of Sanaa University in 1971. The 4-level integrated courses are aimed at imparting proficiency in language skills as well as making the learners acquainted with literary pieces, authors, forms and trends. Advanced courses in language and literature are taught at MA level whose objectives, too, are arguably holistic. To be sure, English language teaching has justified primacy in the context of Yemen and the program is being executed in a functional and goal-directed way, but literary studies do cry out for certain alternative enterprises within the space of English studies in Yemeni universities. It relates to a lot that is going on in language, literature and culture outside of the ‘metropolitan’ canons of standard British or World Literature Written in English (usually abbreviated WLWE hereafter). Since institutional arrangements for area studies program, mulitcultural curriculums or ethnic studies have not yet been organized, WLWE with its perspectives on a wider range of societies carries important implications.
While there is a degree of inbuilt flexibility in the selection of study items within the prescribed course frame, what we have practically is a cloned version of English literature which was taken by British to the empire in the early 19th century to fortify their fragile colonial foundation in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Pacific territories, and later by the USA in Hawaii, Puerto Rica, the Philippines etc. Of course Yemen is free from colonial antecedents; the control of Aden was too peripheral to lead to any subtle social engineering, but in some of the subjugated regions, where stakes were very high, native resistance was sought to be diluted by implanting English literary studies. The agenda has survived decolonization in that the English literary curriculum in most parts of the world including Yemen is still cast in the colonial mould. For example, the disciplinary formation of English literary studies in England beginning tentatively at the University College of London University in 1828 stabilized only in the last decades of the 19th century in the premier British universities, but it was institutionalized in India much earlier as a result of the 1853 Act. Reverend Thomas Dale, the first Professor of English in England, organized the first university course in English literature but soon became ‘the profession’s first economic causality’. On the other hand, in the colonies its study lent respectability and ensured proximity to power and privilege. Around the same time Britain’s Lord Macaulay slighted the whole literature of India and Arabia, belittling it to “a single shelf of European books,” and the school boys from Rangoon to Reading began to bone up on English writers in a state of colonial cringe.
Now, the boot is on the other foot. The empire has written back with compelling moxie and energy. Edward Said, an expert on Arabic literature and professor of English at Columbia University in New York, who pioneered the study of postcolonial writing with his widely known book Orientalism (1978), has interrogated the complex ideological agendas of imperialism. While Said has vigilantly demystified the canonization of western works, the writers of Britain’s former colonies have appropriated the Queen’s English and emerged, in a manner of speaking, as the makers of World Fiction. It is a thousand pities that most of the universities in the Middle East haven’t yet got on to it.
Variously termed WLWE, postcolonial literature, contact literature, postcolinial literature, resistant literature, Commonwealth literature, new literature in English, or the Third World literature in English, this alternative body of writing remained marginalized by a mainstream dominated by England and the United States till recently. But during the last two decades it has attracted attention for its quality and variety. Universities like Leeds in the UK, Flinders and Macquarie in Australia which warmed towards the subject long back have joined up new takers in India and Singapore, Malaysia as well as South Africa, and several other countries. Still, many of our academics are grudgingly accepting this new component of English studies; their pedagogical assumptions wedded to the colonial and canonical flavour of the English syllabi have not yet opened up to the glassnot in literary productions in India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Nigeria, the Caribbean countries etc. They tend to dismiss new literature in English as mere modish output by mediagenic writers with funky erudition and tricksy craft. Well, maybe in some cases. But WLWE deserves to be well-weighed at least for the critical mass it has already had to dislodge its mainstream rivals.
Why should the corpora of English literary studies in Yemen be turned around to make room for new literatures in English and current theoretical issues facing the discipline today? Much as tenable the idea is, it is not unproblematically acceptable. But polemics apart, certain points heave into view. A student of the modern English novel from Yemeni universities, or for that matter from any part of the world, will find his gears seized up among peers if he is ignorant of works like The Remains of the Day, The English Patient, The Famished Road, Sacred Hunger, The Bone People, Sour Sweet, A Suitable Boy, The Fine Balance, The God of Small Things etc. Not that these books have hogged hype for their heft and gloss and British fiction is down in the dumps. Their authors twirl phrases with a blaze of confidence and do engage the tumult of the wider world. They are compulsory page turners with a potent subterranean pull and resonate with readers for a good measure. Not for nothing have the majority of the Booker Prize recipients or its redoubtable runners-up during the recent years been non-British English writers, and one of them, Derek Walcott, a poet of African and Dutch descent, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992. Weaned merely on the staple diet of Anglo-American classics, students of English literature today will be cut off from a rich vein of experience effectively mined by the postcolonial constellation.
Collectively, World Fiction in English stars a pod of stand-up and feisty exponents. With prodigious talent and admirable performance these writers including V.S. Naipaul, Kazuo Ishiguru, Michael Ondaatje, Ben Okri, Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Vikram Seth, Rohinton Mistry and, of course, Arundhati Roy constitute a tectonic shift in contemporary English literature-changing as it were – the very implications of English literature. The term has long ceased to men the literature of England and today covers a wider range of national productions than ever before. As a matter of fact, WLWE is the glittering tiara of the English language and the English establishment has already begun to acknowledge it. Do these writers click by virtue of their command of the language, as Bill Buford, the American editor of the bouncy London magazine Granta, suggests? Or, have they been pole-vaulted into prominence by sheer hype?
Aggressive marketing blitz, huge advances, book launch parties, rave reviews and other frills have no doubt helped the World Fiction titles to hit the market. However, hype alone can’t sustain high explosion in the sales of books. The potential or hunger for reading can be tapped only by a book which has a certain amount of integrity to it. As regards media recognition, even P.G. Wodehouse titles were recently reissued by Penguin with a theme party. So it is part of the game, notwithstanding purists who cock a snook at the elite club of megaselling authors pushed up by a splurge.
The fact that the publishers have made capital of the consumption of postimperial literature in English and readers have agreed fills one with eager anticipation that the harbingers and heralds of the 21st century literature will be the new breed of literary lions from the decolonised world, not the writers of the Anglo Saxon ancestry. And sure enough, in the run-up to the millennium foreign publishing firms are setting up their imprints outside Europe and America. New authors have been introduced by English language presses in Singapore, Australia and India. This year has seen the launch of Picador India and the Routledge India Liaison office in New Delhi. When asked why Picador decided to launch in India, its chief spokesperson, Peter Straus, made no bones about the markedly high standing of Indian writing in English: “… the success, prestige and profile of India writers … more recently of course Arundhati Roy, who is a bestseller in every single country she has published, a huge bestseller, outselling many of our English writers by kind of ten to one often. The prestige of Rohinton Mistry, the only writer to be shortlisted for the Booker for his first and second novels, these writers have led to a certain kind of confidence and an ability that we have not seen for a long time in many countries. I don’t think anybody believed that Indian Ink would sell ninety-eight thousand copies of The God of Small Things (a novel by Arundhati Roy, which won the Booker Prize in 1997 and had 22 editions worldwide in the four months of its publication, and has been translated into many European languages including Catalan and Estonian), but that surely suggests that it must testify to a hunger and an interest in such writing and such literature that we hope to tap.” Peter’s point gives us cause to ponder.
A fascinating component of WLWE is the growth of pointillist literary enterprises by Asian immigrants and diasporic communities in Britain and America who have been historically denied visibility. These writers offer up a new perspective on the ethnic minority groups in the society in which they live. They yank up slivers of their lost roots, their struggle in and reaction to the new land, clash of Asian and European values to leaven their writings with new energy, allusiveness and intelligence. Thus Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston, who helped bring the fiction of Chinese Americans into the American mainstream; Bharati Mukherjee, who lives in the US and writes about Asian immigrants in America; Hanif Kreishi, Farrukh Dhondy and Atima Srivastava, who are prominent Asian writers in Britain, and several others, embricated in their won traditions, constitute a collective indication of the transitional literature in the new millennium.
Where do we go from here? Should the English literary curriculum in Yemen cope with WLWE? Or the new literary variant may be discarded because it will clutter up the process of teaching English literature. Or why, it might lead to a slide into uncritical endorsement of popular literature – a tad thin and superfluous. The answer to these questions entails close engagement with a clutch of the writers who have signposted WLWE with their trail blazing works. Competing points of view are bound to be there, especially when academics jealously guard disciplinary boundaries. Can Jane Austen and R.K. Narayan, Margaret Drabble and Yasmine Gooneratne, Kingley Amis and Rohinton Mistry lie cheek by jowl? Some of us sneer. Well, it’s like asking how Andrew Motion and Ted Hughes can be Britain’s fellow poet laureates.
More to the point, we should not forget that a good part of the Eurocentric curriculum in Social Sciences is being rejected. Mulitculturism in the US has already been centered around the educational curricula. During my speaking engagements in Spanish universities in 1997 I found graduate students on the prowl through the pages of postcolonial writers and the course has caught on. Many Asian universities, too, are chafing under academic dependencies of the West – half the Indian universities have broken off from monolithic English syllabus at the tertiary level. If literature is vitally valid for its perspectives on society, then we do need transcultural literature in a world language undergoing steady adaptation, variation and change. Also, it not only purveys multiple perspectives on non-western societies in ‘new English’ but also bypasses the difficult process of translation.
However, the idea is not to replace English literature with WLWE because it will result in a rueful grand dismissal. What is suggested nonetheless is common pursuit to nudge our normative considerations of genuine writing to proliferating diversities of WLWE and negotiate gradual curricular adjustment.