This past weekend, International Authors books were on display at the American Literature Association Conference in Boston.
At the conference I read a paper on "The Place of American Literature in Emerging Global Anglophone Culture." My talk featured the responses of many International Authors people, who sent me their reflections on their experience with American literature in their countries. Dario Rivarossa (Italy) and Michael Butterworth (UK) are no strangers to Highbrow readers. Here, beginning with Dario, are their statements as I included them in my talk:
As for my readings in American literature, I usually start by being fascinated by an author, then try to read everything he wrote, possibly in English.
The first American writers I happened to meet and love as a teenager were Poe (my father had a couple of anthologies), Melville (Moby-Dick), and H. P. Lovecraft—probably the very first author of whom I bought the Complete Works in English, some years later.
The most interesting feature of great American literature, especially seen from old Italy, is its modernity. US authors dealt with the now-ubiquitous lifestyle with its technology, Stock Exchanges, “melting pots,” etc., when our writers still offered Romanticized and twisted versions of our “glorious” past.
Moby-Dick, first translated by Cesare Pavese in 1932, was a cultural shock and a breath of fresh air in then Fascist Italy: a new kind of Epic, powerful adventure, thrilling characters…
I first heard about the novel when I was a child. My grandmother, speaking of the Gregory Peck movie she had just watched on TV, told me about “the White Whale.” I was so fascinated by that concept that I almost immediately drew it, without any further data; in fact, I drew a standard whale, nor the sperm kind. I also made comic stories with a combative whale as the hero.Yesterday I posted on Devashish Makhija's chidlren's book, When Ali Became Bajrangbali. Here is his statement from the paper:
In Italian high schools, as far as I know, basically Melville, Poe, and Faulkner are anthologized. Poe is still interpreted according to the very restrictive Mauditistic key provided by Baudelaire, who first “imported” his works to Europe.
As a footnote to Mr. Rivarossa’s identification of modernity as a defining feature of American literature, I shall cite a remark by British author and publisher Michael Butterworth, whose career in writing began in the 1960s with New Worlds magazine. He writes: “Americans just seem more contemporary and immediate in their style, more relevant to the age in which we grew up in terms of their concerns. We grew up looking at the import bookshelves. This applied to both fiction and graphics. In the 50’s and 60’s, America was the future. Of English writers only J.G. Ballard and Michael Moorcock seemed relevant, and they were both inspired by William S. Burroughs.”
In India, you encounter different curriculums in different cities since every state speaks a different language and has a different education board. Since I’m from Calcutta, I’ll speak for that city. Interestingly at a school/college level, we were not exposed to any American literature. All writing in English we read has been Indian or British.Altogether, it was a terrific conference. Many thanks to Ms. Martel for helping with the International Authors display.
The only thing we’ve been exposed to in those years that was American was a thick diet of American cinema (as was the rest of the world I presume).
But as I grew up I’ve discovered (of my own accord) some writers, from Twain (foremost) to Elmore Leonard (yes, that wide has been my spectrum).
If left to me (being brutally honest) I wouldn’t prescribe any American literature. India is a very very confused country. Within our own geographical boundaries we speak 28 official languages and over 300 unofficial ones—dialects mostly. And almost none of this is represented in our curriculum. We still haven’t been able to shake off the British yoke in our education system. Introducing some American prose in there will make us even more disconnected from our roots. Many local literatures are now being translated into English and I’d vote for those instead. But that’s only my point of view on the matter.