This past fall, I took English 128, “World Literature,” with professor Stephanie Newell. There’s been a fair bit written about the backlash the English department has faced in the past about having only “dead white men” in the curriculum and how “World Literature” is the savior course to diversify the English curriculum. Students begged the department for the voices of women and people of color, and “World Literature” gave us those voices. Unfortunately, at certain points in the course, my fellow classmates and I weren’t open to actually hearing these alternative voices, unless they were colored with a Western viewpoint. These writers were often so foreign to us that we could not step away from ourselves when reading their works. “World Literature,” while filled with brilliant, diverse authors, did not successfully bring diversity to the English department because students still push a Western ideal in the classroom instead of one that takes into account the views of “world” literature.
During most of the semester, I was happily reading the texts of this course, written by Mary Prince, a black woman; Ngugi, a South African; and Alice Munro, a Canadian woman, among others, with my Western viewpoint. I was applying the frameworks I was familiar with — education for everyone is important, women should have freedom and power and we should all strive for equality. However, the last novel that we read in the course, Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie, put me in a different position. For once, I identified with the characters and the author himself. Rushdie, like myself, is an Indian immigrant. His culture is British-Indian, similar to my Indian-American culture. We talked about otherness with the other writers, but for once I didn’t think that Rushdie or his characters were “other.” My classmates were the other in this situation, and the characters and I were on the same page. I stepped away from my Western views when reading Rushdie’s work, because I could.
When it came to our class discussion on “Midnight’s Children,” we spent a lot of time grappling with the role of women in the text. While Rushdie discusses some very strong and powerful women who are able to control men, my classmates argued that Rushdie was, basically, a woman-hater and could have done a better job of representing women. His depiction of women was “problematic” because he did not give women full agency to make their decisions and portrayed them as lesser to men. Now, for the first time in this course, I thought “Well, duh!” Of course he didn’t make women equal. Women in South Asia are not treated equally; they weren’t treated equally then, around the time of Indian independence, and they sure aren’t treated equally now. I made my point — Rushdie wasn’t going to treat women equally in his writing because that’s not what he saw in India.
Well, that opened up the floodgates. For the next 40 minutes of class, I got pretty roasted by each of my classmates. My classmates pointed out that Rushdie took other creative liberties, so he should have taken this one, too. Women should have been depicted equally! Each point was the same — I was wrong, and they were right because women deserve more power. Rushdie has to do better.
My classmates were imposing their Western ideas of equality and women’s rights on the situation, and the classroom turned more into a debate of who can claim the moral high ground and can thus claim to be right because of it. Those begging for more equal depictions of women are more righteous, and therefore they must be right! While English students begged for diverse literature, it really seemed like they were begging for works with extreme activist leftist viewpoints that they could read about and agree with. Instead, they got stuck with Rushdie, an imperfect person of color who still wrote about mistreatment of women. They criticized Rushdie for writing his truth because his view of women wasn’t in line with Western ideas, and there was still room for disagreement. “World Literature” gave us good, divisive literature that discusses decolonization in countries and all of the problems that are still left.
So, did the English department succeed in its attempts at diversification? Well, “World Literature” did bring people of color and women writers to the curriculum, but it didn’t bring the safe diversity that many Yale students desire, and it didn’t bring out diversity of thought in students. “World Literature” brought flawed writers and the issues in their societies to the classroom. But I do think that the conversations that Newell provoked we had after this class period on Rushdie — on why we must approach literature with humility and how we must read these works with grace and respect for different cultures was — vital in creating the ability for more diverse thought in all of us.
Anushree Agrawal is a junior in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .