Why Reading Globally Matters

When it was announced in March that Zimbabwean author NoViolet Bulawayo had won the PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award for her mesmerizing debut novel We Need New Names, it wasn’t difficult to share in her victory. Honors such as these further prove that literature from all parts of the world merits our collective attention. Bulawayo, who writes in English, shows the beaming promise of a young Junot Diaz. With a style all her own—one steeped in wit and striking imagination—she movingly details the complexities of the immigrant experience. Not only is Bulawayo talented, she is also necessary. Discovering her and her work, whether we know it or not, is necessary. 

Although I’d read a ton of poetry—from Frost to Dickinson and Whitman—I’ll submit I wasn’t all that bookish a teen. Not until the summer after my senior year of high school, in fact, did I realize my reading habits were a bit too insular, lacked variation. This needed to be remedied. So I sought out some familiar titles, made a few lists, and soon became captivated by the usual suspects: Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck. I read The Old Man and the Sea in one sitting and committed to As I Lay Dying and The Moon is Down. For the next several years, with occasional exceptions, these three gentlemen and their respective oeuvres dominated my reading. Until I saw an article in Paste touting some Bolaño as “the Kurt Cobain of Latin-American literature.” Intrigued, and with a hint of shame, I thought, What the hell is Latin-American literature? The next day, I ordered By Night in Chile, Roberto Bolaño’s novella about a tortured priest’s deathbed confessional. Suffice to say, something happened. Line by line, page by page, a door was beginning to open; a door I never knew was closed, and, for that matter, existed. What I’d discovered, I came to understand, was a new voice, one that was altogether beautiful and terrifying; commanding, too, with a vision in a world all its own. Soon, like so many before and after me, I took to devouring all of Bolaño’s translated works in quick succession. I was plunged into a world of violence, literature, illicit sex, and wayward poets in a race against time. The man wrote about Latin America with the brunt of a journalist and the controlled rhythm of a composer. Bolaño, who died in 2003, was a true craftsman, plugging away incessantly against the backdrop of personal illness. Sure, I’d dabbled in some Kafka and Garcia Marquez, but those were acclaimed writers who’d, deservedly, long been translated to English and had earned their proper due. Bolaño was my introduction, or perhaps initiation, to the canon of international literature. Naturally, I came to wonder: What else have I not been exposed to?

Do other Americans ask themselves similar questions when stumbling upon the work of gifted international writers? Or are the majority of us content with being fascinated by our own nation’s mythology? These questions are worthy of our pondering. In my case, it was an issue of broadening a somewhat narrow worldview. And literature from countries outside of my own, from Chile and France and Japan and Russia, began the work of providing a more holistic education­—one concerned with making sense of the entire world, not just a small portion.

It’s simple, really. If we’re only paying mind to the storytellers of our own country, we’re robbing ourselves blind of something rich and meaningful. No matter what our bag, whether it be science fiction, crime, fantasy, whatever, there are a slew of serious writers contributing to the pot, providing a camera angle we perhaps have not yet witnessed. It’s to be noted, also, that the behind the scenes work needed to even get translated projects completed and on our radar is no small task. And as Pacific Standard recently reported, “Only three percent of everything published in the U.S. each year is translated from another language—and the majority of that is computer manuals and other technical material.” This is a sobering fact but one we can all make an effort to change.

Now. This is not an attempt to burden with statistics and theories regarding the average American reader’s close-mindedness. Rather, it’s to encourage book lovers of all types to seek outside voices shedding light on the world conversation. If we desire to shape our book culture in such a way that doesn’t exclude anyone, voracious readers are the ones who must create that demand; by broadening our own tastes and educating others.

Publishing houses like Melville House, New Directions, and Archipelago Books, among others, are tirelessly doing the work of bringing exciting things to the forefront. People like Hilda Hilst (Brazil), Felisberto Hernández (Uruguay), and Jean-Christophe Valtat (France), have some of the dopest works of fiction available in English. Many of these names are finally gaining the readership they deserve on a worldwide scale. Takashi Hiraide’s (Japan) latest novella The Guest Cat was met with an instantly favorable response and ended up on The New York Times best-seller list.

Similar to my experience with Bolaño, was my encounter with the Hungarian writer, László Krasznahorkai—who also proved to be a towering visionary. Novels like The Melancholy of Resistance and Satantango reveal an artist deeply motivated by apocalyptic themes and a universe at war with itself. His prose is bleak and carries with it a strong poetic flair, drawing you in at the sentence level. So many good things can be said for Pedro Mairal from Argentina and the Moldovan author Vladimir Lorchenkov, both with recent releases from New Vessel Press. Then we have others like Samanta Shweblin (Argentina) whose full-length collections have yet to be translated to English. Her stories, a few of which can be read here and here, deserve recognition. Her style is gripping, effortlessly going from humorous to downright horrific in the span of a few lines. In 2010, Granta recognized her in their Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists issue. Still, we need more Samanta.

Although it can often be “easy to ignore what the rest of the world is saying” as Chip Rossetti pointed out, it would do us more good to not. And why would we want to? All forms of intelligent expression and storytelling possess something of value to give to the whole. And everyone, from everywhere, plays an important role in documenting the joys and pains of the human experience. When we miss parts, willfully or not, we are, in effect, not getting the full story. And when we don’t have the full story, how can we expect to understand something as complicated as the world?

As the publishing industry continues to change and evolve, the future of reading remains intact. Whatever manner we choose to consume literature—be it a digital device or a physical book—what’s important is that there is consumption taking place. And expanding on what we consume, by way of international voices, will prevent us from degenerating into what Sarah Winstein-Hibbs calls “a boring swamp of cultural incest.” Truth be told, nothing will ever diminish the value of broad and informed reading. So here’s to a future of variety for readers everywhere.

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