What I’ve learned from travelling around the world (in short stories)
Last year I taught a course near where I live. Without leaving our corner of Scotland, my class travelled around the world by studying twenty-four short stories from six continents. In this blog I’ll reflect on some of the things I learned from our literary journey, and suggest why I think it’s important for every writer to read work from cultures, settings and languages other than their own.
Like many people I have my favourite short story writers, and this means I have a default set of expectations about what a story could, or maybe should, be like. For example, I love Raymond Carver’s pared-down realism, his tough, wry accounts of people who don’t quite fit in to twentieth-century American society. One of the reasons for round-the-world reading is it shakes up expectations about a genre. In our class we encountered work which was very different from Carver’s: the surreal magic realism of Gabriel García Márquez’s ‘A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings’, in which a raggedy angel becomes the centre of attention in a village (if you like fantasy you should read this Colombian author). We also looked at the very quiet, very subtle marital dynamics of ‘Private Tuition by Mr Bose’, a story as delicate as spun sugar, by the Indian writer Anita Desai.
Some of the stories were a challenging mash-up of genres, such as ‘Nothing Visible’ by Siddhartha Deb. This piece starts off sounding like factual journalism, reporting on working conditions in an Indian mine, and ends up as something altogether more Gothic and supernatural. There are a huge variety of short story writers out there, writing in a huge range of forms, voices and genres, so if you think you don’t like short stories, it’s worth casting your net wider – you’re bound to find something that will strike a chord, and influence your own writing. That’s why, in the first of our Zoom book groups for creative writing students, we’ll be reading and discussing three short stories by authors from a range of cultures and backgrounds.
Another eye-opener was learning about how some authors engage with questions which I, as an English-speaking British writer, take more or less for granted. The Kenyan Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, for example, is fluent in English but has chosen to write in his mother tongue, Gĩkũyũ. This means that he’s reliant upon translation for his work to reach an international audience: his story ‘The Upright Revolution’, a fable about politics and solidarity, is the most translated piece of African literature. Thiong’o explains that ‘my writing in Gĩkũyũ language, a Kenyan language, is part of the anti-imperial struggles of Kenyan people.’ He argues that Kenyan languages have been marginalised in the country’s education system, so his writing in Gĩkũyũ is political – an effort to stimulate cultural self-confidence after decolonisation.
Thiong’o is writing in a specific cultural context. It’s not quite the same thing, but even for monolingual English speakers there’s a lesson here – no-one can tell you there’s a right and a wrong way of speaking, only effective and less effective ways of writing. One of the other stories we read was Anne Donovan’s Scots-dialect ‘All That Glisters’, which resonated with members of my class not used to seeing local language in print. It can be liberating as an individual, or as part of a community, to write in your own accent.
A final lesson I learned from my short story travels was how fruitful conversations across cultures are. For example, we read stories by Yiyun Li, Jhumpa Lahiri and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, three American-based writers whose works are informed by their Chinese, Bengali and Nigerian heritages. These authors’ fusions of styles and influences, and their stories about migrants, emigres, tourists and others living in a variety of societies, introduced my class to different situations than those they’d lived through themselves. You learn different things when you read someone’s take on the world than you do when you’re on the regular tourist trail.
As a reader and as a writer I’ve learned a lot from going around the world in short stories. My challenge to you is to do the same – look up some of the writers named in this blog, or put together your own international reading list. There’s a whole, diverse world of amazing fiction out there, and exploring it is a lot cheaper than other ways of travelling around the world.
image of globe © Porapak Apichodilok from Pexels.