Writers are crossing borders

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Writers are crossing borders

What is ‘world writing’? It is new but what makes it special? Chris Brazier talks to Elleke Boehmer from Oxford University.


Elleke is a novelist and a critic. She was born in South Africa and she is of Netherlands origin, but she lives in Britain. This seems right for the ‘Professor of World Literature in English’.

New Internationalist has stories from world literature in the October 2016 magazine and four collections of stories by 75 authors in other magazines in 2016. How are they different from other short stories? And what makes a novel part of ‘world writing’?

‘World writing’ has only really become popular since 2000. Elleke talks about the great German writer Goethe. He spoke about world writing in1839. ‘He read a Chinese novel and he understood what was happening outside Europe. He saw a new age of world literature coming. So in a way world writing comes to us from Goethe to the present.’

“In the late 20th century there was strong ‘postcolonial’ literature and criticism, and we still have that today. It is more political but world literature is interested more in style and form and whether they cross languages and national borders or not’.


Beyoncé sings ’Freedom‘ in California. She has helped some African writers to find a bigger audience. Danny Moloshok / Reuters .

What perhaps makes ‘world writing’ different is the audience that people are writing for. Before writers wrote mainly for their own nation. That was very true for writers who were fighting for national freedom. Now writers are writing for readers outside their own nations. And they have moved to other countries to help their writing or to find opportunities.

And we see this in the Caine Prize for African Writing. The Caine Prize began as an African-British idea and the Prize is still given in England each year. Each winner spends time as writer-in-residence at Georgetown University in Washington DC. And many Caine Prize winners and nominees are now attached to universities all over the US.

‘Everybody is very happy to go to the US,’ says Elleke. ‘I think this is because of those creative-writing programmes which really want to bring in African writers – especially Nigerian writers. I think this is partly because of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the African writer.’


Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in Frankfurt, Germany. She is one of the most famous faces of ’world writing‘. Frank Rumpenhorst / DPA / PA Images Frank Rumpenhorst / DPA / PA Images

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is possibly the most famous face of ‘world writing’. Readers all over the world enjoy her classic novels set in Nigeria – Purple Hibiscus (2003) and Half of a Yellow Sun (2007). She kindly gave a short story to our One World collection. There are stories in the collection by many new writers. Then, in 2013 her third novel Americanah came out. Also in 2013 she found a new audience when Beyoncé sampled part of her TED talk ‘We should all be feminists’ in her hit song and video ‘*Flawless’.

Elleke says that Beyoncé has also introduced to the world the Somali poet Warsan Shire. She was the poet-in-residence at the London Olympics and writes wonderful emotional poetry about migration and the Mediterranean, and about leaving your home. Beyoncé quoted her on her latest album Lemonade.

We return to the question: Is there something about a world short story, novel or poem that makes it different and not just part of one nation? Is there something about how it interests the reader or about its vocabulary, that makes it more a part of the world than only one nation?

‘I think there is something clearly about the world in Chimamanda’s novels,’ says Elleke. ‘It is interested in Nigeria and is also very open to other cultures, and to African America.‘

The Nigerian writer and critic Ovo Adagha and I worked together to find the writers and stories for One World Two. We noticed that many of the writers had some kind of dual nationality. They were born in one country but moved to another country or countries. There is a story from One World Two in the October 2016 magazine, ‘Ghosts’, by Ana Menéndez. The story is set in Florida but is about an immigrant from the Czech Republic and the suicide of a young Cuban man. All these ideas come together as they must in the lives of all migrants.

Elleke is interested in the readers that the writers are writing for. She thinks that this is something which has really changed if we compare 1990 with 2015. She thinks postcolonial or world writers are doing something very different now. Before they were thinking more about a national audience.

I ask Elleke if she thinks that the writers expect that they can now speak to the whole world.

Elleke, ‘Yes. You can see this in a writer like Caryl Phillips. When he was writing The European Tribe or some of his early novels, he was thinking of a British audience and maybe a Black British auidence. But now it’s clear he is thinking about an American audience. The Australian writer Richard Flanagan won the Man Booker Prize in 2014 for The Narrow Road to the Deep North. He writes about war and the environment and this interests world audiences. But at the same time he is very Australian in his writing and very interested in his own nation.’

I find it interesting that Elleke includes white writers in world literature because of what they choose to write about.

Ellleke says,‘Yes, that is not everybody’s opinion but it is my opinion because if not we continue a kind of apartheid in our reading of the novel or the short story. I’ll give the example of one of my students, Edward Dodson. In his research he says that Alan Hollinghurst and Julian Barnes are postcolonial British writers. I was not sure about this at first but now I agree with him. So, yes, through thinking about things which are very important for the whole planet – the environment and minorities – these writers have a worldwide audience. Han Kang won the Man Booker International in May 2016 for The Vegetarian. She’s a Korean writer and the novel is about Korea. But at the same time, the novel is about jealousy and problems in families and so she has a much bigger audience.’

Elleke and I also talk about the way world writing is doing other new things. The latest Caine Prize collection The Daily Assortment of Astonishing Things is a good example of this. FT Kola’s ‘In The Garden’ is in the October 2016 New Internationalist magazine. It is wonderful for its writing and for what it is about. Namwali Serpell’s ‘Zo’ona’ has four different narrators. It crosses classes, races, and countries, and is new in structure and style. Stories like these are taking the Caine Prize to a very different place.

‘Yes, some of these stories are clearly more cosmopolitan. And the writers recognise that economic, social, and cultural power in the world is changing. The writers are looking across borders in the Global South and the stories are not really interested in Europe any more.’

Writing ‘for the world’ is giving authors freedom and so their work is more interesting for their readers.

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: https://newint.org/features/2016/10/01/breaching-the-borders/

(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have changed).