One of the criticisms hurled at American writers is that they are too narrow-minded and know very little about writers elsewhere, past and present. I have written about this in other posts (https://thewomenofletters.com/2013/05/24/the-need-for-a-national-writer/), but it is a topic worth revisiting. In listening to “The World” on NPR a couple days ago, it struck me about the importance of being well-informed about world affairs in politics as a writer. I recently Zoomed with friends from the international polyglot conference, and it was fascinating as always to talk about different languages, sounds, and cultures. I have a background in international education, so the intersection of culture and literature is always of interest to me. So here are some thoughts and suggestions for writers to expand their horizons to become more global in their sensibility.
-Read Nobel laureates. Over the past decade plus, I have chosen to educate myself about literary figures who are titans overseas but often unknown here. I have gotten to know the work of Orhan Pamuk, J.M.G. Le Clezio, Shaw (who is known but considered old-fashioned), and others. A friend from my MFA program recently started a book group to women Nobel laureates in literature, and last month we read Grazia Deledda’s Reeds in the Wind. The excitement for the group was indeed palpable, and I am certainly looking forward to the next meeting. Why not create a book group of your own to read Nobel laureates, women only or both genders?
-Inform yourself about world affairs. Don’t just rely on American news sources but read international newspapers/news sites such as the BBC or international newspapers’ English editions. Take an interest in what is going on in the world politically, socially, culturally, etc. You might find inspiration for your own work. Susan Minot, who is educated in that most American of institutions, a prep school, and whose great story “Lust” is quintessentially American, wrote Thirty Girls, which was based on her reporting for McSweeney’s on the kidnapping of girls by the Lord’s Resistance Army in sub-Saharan Africa.
-Learn other languages. Author Lydia Davis translates French literature, and Jhumpa Lahiri has studied and written in Italian. Read literature in other languages if you can, even if it is short stories, or even websites. As a polyglot, I can say that it will enrich your mind to understand how to speakers of other languages think and use language.
-Read literature in translation. There’s no question that something does indeed get “lost in translation” as the saying goes, but still, we get a different literary sensibility with literature in translation, and it transports us to different places. The Dictionary of the Khazars by Milorad Pavic’ incorporates not only culture and history, but metafiction a work of literature that is mind-blowing.
-Read other genres. Popular literature has a global appeal (think Harry Potter) as does fantasy (think Tolkien). There are certain universals that readers everywhere like. Myths abound all over the world, and in non-“People of the Book” religions.
-Read myths and creation stories and tales from other religions. Hinduism is based on two great epics, the Mahabharatha and the Ramayana which are quite spectacular and Tolstoyan in their scope and number of characters.
-Tie in history, culture, politics, or a larger social context to your work. This is self-explanatory. It makes your story or novel larger than what it is.
And there are many other ways that you can get to know the stories of others around the world. What will you discover? What is your advice?