The Difficulties of Teaching Non-Western Literature in the United States

Article excerpt

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In my experience, when confronted with difference, students often adopt one of two approaches to make that difference seem less threatening. Either they try to reduce difference to sameness by immediately focusing on possible points of commonality to their own experience or they treat difference as fundamentally disconnected from their own experience.

(Kandaswamy 9)

My goal in this article is to build on Priya Kandaswamy's discussion of students' response to difference in Radical Teacher #80 by unfolding the pitfalls of teaching and responding to "non-Western" literature (1) in the United States as embodied in my own experience teaching non-Western literature to a group of racially and ethnically diverse, mainly working-class students at a large urban comprehensive public university. (2) Given that my students are themselves by and large future secondary school English teachers, the dilemma Kandaswamy articulates takes on particular urgency, since they will soon be passing on their knowledge and learning strategies to their own students. Although Kandaswamy is not specifically addressing the teaching and studying of literature, she does point to the difficulties that teachers and students face when confronted with difference in the context of neo-liberal educational institutions in the United States. These educational institutions are bound to the history of U.S. imperialism by cherished ideological imperatives that include binary constructions of politics, morality, and culture; humanism; and individualism. Humanist values embody liberal platitudes about how everyone is really the same, a flattening out of difference that evacuates history and power in order to assure the humanist that his subjectivity is universal. (As feminism has demonstrated, humanism is invariably gendered as male, despite its pretensions to universality.) U.S. mythology about individualism includes an implicit belief in the effectiveness and unlimited potential of individual agency and an understanding of conflict as struggle between individuals, rather than as a product of history and material power relations. Frequently, it is the most well-meaning of teachers and students who collude in the imperialist enterprise through their unconscious adherence to these values. And often the personal is heavily invested in the political, so the kinds of responses to difference identified by Kandaswamy arise where multiple axes of subjectivity intersect, including not only ideological conditioning and ignorance, but also simple developmental immaturity, and anxiety around one's own sense of self. As Masood Ashraf Raja points out, the "mere act of entering a postcolonial literature class can be quite a challenging event, especially because of the international, anti-foundational, and anti-imperial nature of the postcolonial texts. Under such circumstances, where students are likely to perceive the class as a threat to their own personal identity, learning can be seriously hampered" (33).

The two dichotomous responses to difference chronicled by Kandaswamy are equally troubling because, although different from one another, they carry with them the same racist/colonialist undertones. In the elision of difference, the Western subject becomes the universal subject and Otherness is contained through assimilation to that supposedly universal Western subject. When difference is treated as absolute, the fetishized Other becomes exotic and unknowable, and could never be like "us"--a logic that, however inadvertently, reinscribes colonialist stereotypes and paternalistically masks critical, political, and moral relativism as respect for difference.

These responses were enacted in complex and telling forms in the particular class I am discussing here, an undergraduate senior seminar designed for English majors and future secondary school English teachers as a capstone college experience. The course requires the study of "world short fiction," and the texts I chose to fulfill this component of the requirements included Taiwanese-born author Chen Jo-Hsi's short story "Chairman Mao is a Rotten Egg," set in China during the Cultural Revolution, Ghanaian writer Ama Ata Aidoo's postcolonial narrative "No Sweetness Here," and an excerpt from Tirdad Zolghadr's contemporary Iranian memoir/novel, A Little Less Conversation. …