For centuries now the Western world has held a monopoly on literature. Think of the literary greats and your mind rushes to Londoners, Americans, Frenchmen, Russians. This happens even if you are the most open-minded of people. And in a way it is only fair: the novel is a European invention. It gestated in the ludicrously enlightened Classical period of ancient Greece and Rome and was refined and rubber-stamped in Elizabethan England and finally in Spain with the 1605 publication of Don Quixote.
But did you know that what is normally considered the ‘first novel’ is not European but Japanese? In the 11th century a lady-in-waiting called Murasaki Shikibu published a story called The Tale of Genji – dealing with the life of imperial men and women in the courts of Heian Japan. It was an inspiration to Jorge Luis Borges and a Nobel-prize winning Japanese novelist Yasunari Kawabata. It is a novel of surprising psychological depth and insight – a surprising feat of sophistication for the Medieval days more renowned for bloodshed, Inquisitions and plagues.
Even so the European – Western monopoly on literature still stands. And it’s not surprising considering the history of our world and its politics of one-way-traffic. From the publication of Don Quixote until the interwar years of 1919 – 1939 the world was owned by the West. And this rulership was not merely political but more profoundly it was cultural. The Spanish, the English, French, Portuguese, Belgians and the rest all tried to impose on their beleaguered colonies a homogenous culture of course dictated by what the colonial masters imported. There wasn’t much room for individuality, freedom of speech and cultural co-existence. So why, and how, would a Kenyan, say, publish a novel when the boot of the English master was stamping down on his face and the rest of his family’s?
For the most part the only indigenous literature that flourished during the colonial days were poems, songs, folk stories, oral tales and other, regrettably perishable, undocumented fare.
But, as is to be expected, in the end of the colonial days, in the post-WWII years, post-colonial literature boomed and flourished and threatened, and is still threatening, to carry out a coup against its former masters. Before I mentioned Kenya – look at its thriving literature scene since just before its bloody independence. Think of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and his novel Weep Not, Child, think also of Nigeria’s post-colonial golden age that produced world-beaters like Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka and Ben Okri. Let’s not stay merely in Africa, look at India, once the jewel of the British Empire, now home to literary giants like Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy. South Africa isn’t doing badly for itself either, turning its troubled history into literary gold, the country already producing two Nobel laureates in J.M. Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer.
Speaking of Nobel laureates; if you look at the nationalities of literary laureates in the last few years, you will see that the first-world’s monopoly over literature is in decline. From the year 2000 until today some of the many nationalities that have won the prize include Trinidad and Tobago, South Africa, Turkey, Peru, and Belarus.
Of course the Nobel prize is not the sole-marker of the rise of, shall we call it for lack of a better term, third-world literature. Let’s look also at the Man Booker Prize. In fact, this gives us a more holistic view of the state of world literature today which I will come to soon. Last year’s winner was a Jamaica, Marlon James. In 2013 Canadian-New Zealender Eleanor Catton. 2008 it was Aravind Adiga an Indian-Australian. In 2006 it was another Indian Kiran Desai. And the list goes happily on.
I would argue that the best works of fiction being produced today are coming from the countries you have never heard of. Countries with a troubled history that still bear a proud culture and people that the globalised world is allowing to come to the fore. There are exceptions, of course, but English, American, and French writers can’t surprise us anymore.
Western literature is in a new phase of its evolution. It’s not under threat, by any means; the new crop of third-world writers that are emerging can only enrich our literature, expand its geography, unearth new histories, new vantage points, combine travel with literature, politics with art. And here I’ll mention just a few writers who I think are the new face of literature. In a hundred years’ time when literary historians look back on our age the names that will stand out will be the names we today find hard to pronounce (but we’ll get used to them like we got used to pronouncing Nabokov, Hugo without the H, and Mantel). Names like Edwidge Danticat from Haiti, Junot Diaz the Dominican-American, Tania James (easy enough) the Indian-American, Gioconda Belli the Nicaraguan, Wendy Guerra the Cuban, Juan Gabriel Velasquez the Colombian, the aforementioned Marlon James from Jamaica, Hisham Matar from Libya and the ‘Afropolitan’ Taiye Selasi.
I would recommend you not only look up this new, heterogeneous generation of writers but also read them, get immersed in them, because through them you will find something new; if not always in literary terms, but you will get to know, feel, smell and taste the everyday lives of people in the rest of our world. Literature is the grandest, most concise gateway to anything from politics, history, anthropology and art. And these writers reflect the world we live in, or, rather, should want to live in: a cosmopolitan, outward-looking, curious, integrated world. Literature inspires empathy, learning, understanding – the fundamental principles that we want to base our society upon.
Growing up and making my first forays into novel-reading the writers that inspired me most where the ones that talked to me about brilliantly exotic, haunting, troubled places that made me fall in love with their people and their faults. I consumed anything written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Salman Rushdie, Mario Vargas Llosa, Ben Okri, Nikos Kazantzakis and Ibrahim al-Koni. The English/American writers that I enjoyed reading were the ones who travelled far and hard; Hemingway, Conrad, DH Lawrence and Graham Greene.
But now, we can get it from the horse’s mouth. As much as I admire travel literature you just can’t beat a local voice; it’s more intimate, honest and passionate than that of the outsider and the expat.