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‘Global literature’

June 30, 2011

In an article that aims to problematise the notion of ‘international literature’ and “examine… the depiction of other places in children’s literature, which is sometimes complicated by the notion of national identities” (p96), Susan Louise Stewart observes that “if we want to introduce students to literature that goes beyond our own national borders, we are often limited to a great extent to literature written about other countries by Western authors.  Even though our world has become considerably smaller due to the instantaneousness and spontaneity of travel, the internet, and the media, that phenomenon is not reflected in the variety of international texts we can offer our students.” (p95)  

She starts by discussing some of the many inequities in publishing (racial or ethnic, especially), then proceeds to discussing the concept of ‘international literature’. “J. Garrett,” she writes, “reminds us ‘international children’s literature’ is ‘a figment, as meaningless an abstraction as the notion of ‘the international child.’  He notes that Americans use this term ethnocentrically to signify ‘all the children’s books in the world that are not ‘ours’. …The ‘international’ books presented to American children are only a small taste of children’s literature worldwide, and sometimes a pre-processed one at that. Most of the children’s literature from outside our borders comes from places with people who see the world much as we do and is then edited to conform even more strictly to our worldview.  ‘Not ours’ becomes ‘just like us’.” (p97)

The whole discussion is one I’ve heard before, and one that anyone who reads primarily in English needs to be aware of.  The statistics (which you should search out cos I haven’t!) are truly crazy… basically, very little children’s literature is translated into English.  A great deal is translated from English into other languages.

Gecko Press in Wellington is challenging this by the way! Go Gecko!

Stewart goes on to note: “As [Susan] Stan points out, the lack of international children’s literature has mainly to do with economics and politics.  Aside from North America, Australia, Great Britain, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Japan, most countries do not have the funds to devote to the publication of children’s literature.  Nor do individuals from many parts of the world have the funds to purchase literature for young readers.  Many countries produce children’s literature that is little more than overt propaganda.  On top of that, the expense and risk involved in translating and publishing books written in languages other than English is a deterrent. …The US publishing industry is generally based on capitalism, not altruism.” (p97)

Pointing to the vocabulary changes that ‘americanize’ books (and she might equally point to the title and cover changes!), Stewart observes that “when a book makes a border crossing, it is often transformed into something other than what it was originally.” (p98)

“[U]ltimately,” Stewart writes, as she enters into her analysis of two texts about foreign protagonists written by Western authors, one “needs to be concerned with how authors sometimes project national ideologies on characters from other places for they sometimes create representations that make these ‘other’ places look strange or fundamentally flawed.  It also potentially leads to the enhancement and reification of one nationality at the expense of these ‘other’ places.”

Such discussion is what Stewart suggests to teachers, further asserting that because, in Francis Hodgson Burnett’s classic, “India serves as a backdrop – as a foil – that makes England shine, even when it rains” (p99), it “is useful to use The Secret Garden as a starting point for discussions about more contemporary texts depicting other places.  Since its publication, authors have become more sensitive to their characterizations of other places.” (p99)

In her conclusion, she insists that students and teachers “must be able to look at the depictions of other places and carefully examine the construction of those places in a larger social context, one that helps them recognize when characters become reflections of their own ideological images.” (p104)

NOTE:  The texts she compares are: Homeless Bird, Gloria Whelan, and Parvana’s Journey, Deborah Ellis

Ref: (all emphases mine) Susan Louise Stewart (2008) ‘Beyond Borders: Reading ‘Other’ Places in Children’s Literature’ Children’s Literature in Education 39; 95-105

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