Americans Love World Literature — Except When It's Foreign


Americans are famously reluctant when it comes to reading literature in translation. Only 3% of the books published annually in the United States are translations, in comparison with 15% in France and 12% in Germany. But the dearth of translated literature in America isn't indicative of a lack of literary wanderlust. On the contrary, the American obsession with world literature is apparent in bookstore displays, top literary prizes, and the proliferation of writing about foreign countries. While contemporary books may take us to distant places, most of those available are written in English, and penned by writers who live in the English-speaking world. Americans don’t want to be readers of world literature. They want to be literary tourists.

World literature has always held a place in the English language canon. George Orwell gave us Burma under the British Raj. Joseph Conrad took us to the Congo. Ernest Hemingway helped us travel to Tanzania, Cuba, and Spain. But these were authors of a colonial era, and they wrote about foreign countries as foreigners. Then came postcolonial writers like Salman Rushdie, V.S. Naipaul, and Chinua Achebe: English language authors who inhabited local cultures, rather than displacing them. Today, contemporary American authors writing about life outside the United States are more often immigrants, or the children of immigrants.

The postcolonialists wrote at a time when immigrants were still writing immigrant stories: tales of foreign meals made with improvised ingredients, of doctors taking wage-earning jobs polishing floor tiles, of embarrassed children picking their nails at parent-teacher meetings. But the past decade has produced a generation of immigrant writing that takes us away from America, and back to authors' homelands. As a result, the world literature that Americans are currently reading has mostly been written in English, and by people living far from the country at the heart of the story.

This trend has less to do with language than it does with writers' amenability to act as a tour guide for American readers as they traverse cultural divides. The act of cultural translation is inherent in the process of rendering a foreign land in English. It's typically assumed that the reader lacks prior knowledge, so guidebook-like hand-holding is built into the form and narrative of the story. In contrast, when it comes to translations, the lack of an intermediary leaves American readers to parse things on their own.

English language writers are now treat readers as strangers in a strange land, and the result is world literature that starts to feel like tourism. Granta, Britain's foremost literary magazine, had "travel" as the theme of their latest issue. Rattawut Lapcharoensap's short story collection, set in Thailand, is titled Sightseeing. The title of Pakistani-American author Daniyal Mueenuddin's book, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, almost recalls the wardrobe passage to Narnia.

There is certainly something Narnian, or otherworldly, about these authors' stories, as they engage in a sort of world building familiar to fantasy and science-fiction writing. These books often begin with a child or cloistered narrator whose exploration of unfamiliar territory (think Frodo Baggins leaving the Shire) is paralleled by the reader’s. In other instances, a character begins his story in our reality, but slips into a new world that is then defined by its distinctions from the old (like Harry Potter leaving London for Hogwarts). Slang, jargon, and non-English words must be cushioned in context or explained outright. Descriptions of the setting resemble stage directions, just concrete enough for readers to get their bearings.

Three of the six books on this year's Man Booker Prize short list are by immigrant writers, and two are particularly illustrative of this trend. In Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being, a Canadian-American writer discovers and annotates the diary of a Japanese teenager who was raised in America, allowing the fiction to be peppered with cultural tidbits and explanations (and jargon like cosplay and hikikomori) that feel as natural to the story as they are informative about Japanese culture. NoViolet Bulawayo's We Need New Names follows Darling, a child whose visceral narration precludes the need for readers to have knowledge of Zimbabwe and its politics. Initially, for the reader and for Darling, there is only Budapest, a street lined with wealthy homes and guava trees, and Paradise, the shantytown in which Darling is raised. Having our world confined to two fully imagined spaces makes Zimbabwe navigable for the American reader.

While this world tour is exciting, we should question the authenticity of exotic locales that have been tailored to suit American appetites. Should it bother us if the mythology of the unnamed Balkan country in The Tiger's Wife has been distorted and invented to the point that the location is as far removed from our world as Middle Earth? Does it matter that there is no real-world equivalent to Absurdsvanï, the ex-Soviet republic that is the setting of Gary Shteyngart's Absurdistan? Are we snubbing the real world for the convenience of palatable fictional universes? There is something to be said about the authenticity of literature written for a domestic readership in its mother tongue, but if cultural hand-holding and imaginary nations are what's required to get American readers interested in other countries and cultures, then we should be thankful that such world-building exist at all.