Throughout “World Lite,” we are presented with a dizzyingly megalomaniacal idea of world literature: writers from outside the US and Britain, regardless of time or place, whose association with the category exists only in publishing circles and Western literature departments and the minds of their graduates. The editors seem to think that the right kind of universalism is missing from contemporary literature and literary culture—not that any definition of world literature is too cumbersome and unenlightening to use.
If “global capitalism” is responsible for eliding the local, so too is any cultural criticism that sees the whole world and all its writers as a valuable unit of analysis. The piece simply does not account for work that does speak to local contexts (anticaste literature, for example), hasn’t been translated, and/or is out of tune with the tectonics of the global market. More to the point, it blames the apolitical nature of the world lit industry on third world authors rather than on their Western appropriators.
Perhaps the editors should read more to their taste. Why not give up after reading a chapter of comatose prose by Kiran Desai? Reading with piety produces whiny results—every moment spent on the receiving end of streamlined identity politics is a moment you won’t get back. Reading without piety, on the other hand, is a liberating thing.
—Poorva Rajaram and Michael Griffith
The Chinese writers you should have mentioned, according to your strange definition of “world lit,” are Yiyun Li and Ha Jin, not Yan Lianke, Ma Jian, and Mo Yan. Yiyun Li and Ha Jin both were born in China, but they now write in English for an anglophone audience. As for Ma Jian—and any other member of the “exiled” Chinese writer-dissident community—he’d probably protest that he’d love to be read in China, in Chinese, if it weren’t for the fact that his books are banned. Instead he writes in Chinese and his wife Flora Drew serves as his English translator.
With regard to Mo Yan and Yan Lianke, nonanglophone readers will reject the oversight of their use of language. Both write in a rustic, down-homey style that works well with mainland Chinese readers, but whether that’s translatable to an anglocentric context is questionable. It’s bewildering to me that they’re lumped here with Mohsin Hamid, Anita Desai, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and J. M. Coetzee. Hamid lived in the US as a child, attended an American school in Pakistan, and graduated from Princeton. Desai left India at 14, and Adichie wrote some of her first published work as an MFA student in the US. When the novels of Yiyun Li, another graduate of an American creative writing program, are translated into Mandarin, they feel twisted and irrelevant; her stories have become so essentially American that they feel twice removed from what’s happening in China.