Reading Literature & Relating

When I read Thomas Hardy at a rural secondary school in Zimbabwe, my teachers expected me to relate to the characters, to understand them as part my reality in life. Of course, we were aware that reading these books was a way to travel to worlds far away from ours, but then by the time we finished reading them, we had been made to believe that they talked about our lives. One way in which we related to the characters was through their rural or semi-rural settings (especially Far From the Madding Crowd with its farmlands and plains); our imaginations were supposed to travel far in order to see near; thus, the crackling of embers in our fireplaces would communicate with the stark countryside realism of Hardy’s Dorset. Relating to these strange, but familiar stories opened in us the desire to read and relate that would see me write compositions set in London or New York even though I had not even visited my nearby Zvishavane town.  Such  explorations of foreign but familiar landscapes were even compounded by the fact that later in secondary school we would act Julius Caeser to audiences of proud mothers and grandmothers, to grinning and nodding fathers and grandfathers under a huge, ageless Muunga tree at the school.

But what is the point of all this?

Somehow I came to a world whose reality was that there were literatures one was supposed to read and familiarize with, literatures with strange characters that were meant to typify (without question) the universality of the human condition, characters that defied the label of otherness. What am I saying? I witnessed in this world the distribution of a few literatures presented as the quintessence of everything literary, then later was made to taste and finally accept literatures that were fittingly (and flitingly) other. These literatures, the other, the offshoots of the canonical, these were the literatures that came later when we  at the university, handled by junior professors and adjuncts whose motive seemed to squeeze all the eurocentricism out of us,  only to be shelved as transitory once reached upper division, where we found the tenured faculty smiling out reminders  that only the canonical would take us far (to Oxford where even Marechera with his constricted otherness had been a literature student). No wonder bright students who had for two years been singing Chinweizu’s afrocentricity abandoned Achebe again and exhumed Hamlet. Oh, what a moment that was, a moment to relate again, a moment to write theses that would knock on the doors of Harvard, Oslo, Zurich (at least a few of us left that early, before the mass detachment from the familiar and the desperate attachment to the unfamiliar pursued Zimbabwe).

Now, I have had dreams about teaching Things Fall Apart, Nervous Conditions, or Uncertainty of Hope without so much as cringe at the thought of defamiliarizing my audience from their familiar landscapes. And where I have dared turn dream to reality, I have done a damn good job of helping readers see the familiar in the unfamiliar without, however, seducing them into thinking the unfamiliar is the other to whom they cannot relate; rather, I have sought to help them see a balance between their familiar landscapes and the not-so-unfamiliar, not-even-other, worlds of Dangarembga, Arundhati Roy, Achebe, Ngugi, Valerie Tagwira, and even D.H. Lawrence.

Some readers come to the world of works like Things Fall Apart only when they are getting ready to travel to an African country. You see them at Borders, or Barnes & Noble asking for a novel that would best give an understanding of Africa, and the flattered bookseller (often book browsers believe they know what they are looking for, so if they approach you, you feel distinct or bothered, but definitely flattered) often takes them to Things Fall Apart.

“Thank you so much for this. I want to know what I’m getting myself into before I go. Have you been to Africa?” the reader might say.

“Me? Africa? I haven’t even been to Modesto. But this is a book most prospective travelors to Africa buy,” says the bookseller, whose eye lights when he remembers another title, which is hard to get but happens to have been special-ordered for the store because of an event. ” You can also find House of Hunger by Dambudzo Marechera interesting.”

House of Hunger? It talks about Africa too?” asked the reader.

Dah, thinks the bookseller, who walks the customer to the shelf. Indeed, the book also talks about Africa. So if one looks hard, one might find quite a few books about Africa, but today’s budget will only allow the purchase of one book.

“So which one would you recommend, if someone is only looking to buy one?”

“Things Fall Apart for sure; that’s the one most people say is the best representation of Africa.”

Deal. The reader walks to the cash register. She more places to stop by before finalizing plans for the trip.

The scenario demonstrates one of a few cases where readers willingly enter the world of another literature with the intention to understand how a different society works. Often, such misinformed self-emersion tend to disappoint as anyone who had read Things Fall Apart lately will attest to the fact that it is not be best tool to give you a “clear picture” of Africa today. These readers will encounter a world of the 1800 hundreds and imagine it as today’s Nigeria, only to be disappointed, or uplifted, when they reach Lagos one day; that is, if the touristic reader was travelling to Nigeria; most of these readers who are encouraged to read Things Fall Apart by their travel advisors are often visiting countries like Kenya, Ghana, South Africa, and sometimes Zimbabwe.

My point then?

Readers of world literature (and there is no other literature) must be willing (as long as they know they are willing) to enter the world of literature to relate and live. Readers come in different shapes and convictions, and there are those who have to make reading literature their purpose on earth through the attainment of literature degrees and certificates; these have not excuse but to understand (as long as they are aware they understand) the principle upon which literature is anchored: the willingness to read and relate, realizing that in order to relate, they have to be intact selves.

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