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Daniel Simon worked through the quaking of the earth in Norman, Oklahoma, to finish this interview. (Skeptics can check the evidence here.) That will tell you something about his ability to focus--a characteristic that likely suits his role as editor-in-chief of World Literature Today, one of the finest and most well-designed literary magazines out there. The bimonthly is a joyful specialist in global literature and titles in translation, drawing on nearly nine decades of exploration into the world's storytelling. WLT was founded in 1927 as Books Abroad and changed its name in 1977. The magazine went through a significant redesign and reorientation in how it approaches literary criticism about five years ago, and now, moving into its 85th year of continuious publication out of the University of Oklahoma, WLT is the second-oldest literary periodical in the United States. (By the way: your first-time subscription is a mere $15 for the year--half off the cover price--for a limited time. Just saying.)
Beyond his role at the magazine, Daniel teaches in the University of Oklahoma's English department and School of International and Area Studies. He earned his Ph.D. in comparative literature with an emphasis on translation studies from Indiana University at Bloomington, and he has held editorial positions at the University of Oklahoma Press and University of Nebraska Press. Daniel, a native of Nebraska, now makes his home with his family in Norman.
In our conversation, Daniel and I discuss literary hybridity, an upheaval in book reviewing, national identity, international mongrels, the unique vantage of magazines with a long view, and how the mania for classification intersects with the emergence of the global writer. Also, Marcus Aurelius makes a cameo.
You’ve been with World Literature Today since 2002. In your time at the magazine – and perhaps in your time engaging with literature from around the world more generally – what has surprised you?
What persistently surprises me is the astonishing hybridity of contemporary literature and culture. When I was studying the literary masters in college, there was almost always a one-to-one correspondence between authors and their languages or countries of origin, through the end of the nineteenth century at least, and especially in the Western canon: Dante was quintessentially Italian, Voltaire was quintessentially French, Mary Shelley was quintessentially English, and so on. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, however, some of the greatest authors defy such pigeonholing: authors like Conrad, Kafka, Celan, and Nabokov achieved fame in a mother tongue that was not the dominant language of their nations, or adopted a second language as a literary homeland. In our current era of exile, displacement, and diaspora, that multilingual, plurivocal quality seems now to be the norm rather than the exception. As I wrote in our March 2009 issue, “rootedness in the modern era is no longer a contingency of birth.” And as the francophone authors of the “Littérature-monde” manifesto wrote in 2007, in a world in which “the colonial pact is broken,” language has been “freed from its exclusive pact with the nation” (see WLT, March 2009, 54-56). As we enter the second decade of the twenty-first century, the increasing hybridity of literature continues to disrupt our accepted notions and stable categories.
I love the idea of that literary hybridity, and the possibilities it promises. But one thing I’ve noticed in my conversations with other readers is that despite the difficult-to-pigeonhole international writing that has emerged, there is still a tendency to elevate the authors’ nationality as representative. For example, people will read a “Chilean novel,” or describe someone as a “Greek author.”
On one hand, this is simply useful language and can be great in developing American awareness about international literature. On the other hand, it can be limiting – it can imply a presumption that there is some single essence of Chilean novels, which belies the hybridity you talk about, and it can also imply a sense of sufficience, as in, “I’ve already read/published a Greek novel this year.” Not to mention the complicated relationships many writers have with their birth nationality. Do you think these assumptions of readers (and many publishers) are now on their way to being disrupted – given what you’re saying about the disruptive trajectory of writers around the world – or is another catalyst necessary? Or does this not even matter much?
I think the disruption has been happening for at least half a millennium by now, but as publishers, editors, and readers, I think we’re perpetually manic for classification schemes. Until as recently as 2005, the WLT book review section had a rather unwieldy division between “major” languages (English, French, German, Italian, Spanish), a random assortment of European language groups (Baltic, Finno-Ugric, Germanic, Slavic), two geographic regions (Africa & the West Indies and Asia & the Pacific), as well as two gallimaufry categories called “Various Languages” and “Perspectives on World Literature.” The Eurocentric (colonial) bias inherent in that scheme is obvious, I think. That Mandarin, Hindi, Urdu, Arabic, Bengali, Portuguese, and Japanese, representing some 1.8 billion native speakers (just to pick languages with over 100 million each), didn’t merit separate categories seems astonishingly provincial. So, in our January 2006 issue, we abandoned the linguistic/geographic division in favor of one based on genre: fiction, poetry, theater, and nonfiction. I think it’s refreshing to see authors from, say, Malaysia, Albania, Zimbabwe, Nicaragua, and New Zealand all reviewed next to one another.
Too, we continue to evolve our editorial strategy at WLT by only occasionally featuring single countries in the special sections that we present. For one thing, trying to accurately represent the literature of any given country is enormously difficult (think of China, India, Mexico, the US, etc.). Moreover, with some 195 countries around the world from which to choose, it would take us more than 32 years (counting 6 issues a year) to circle the globe on a country-by-country tour. So, in recent years we’ve shifted our focus toward such thematic topics as censorship and freedom of speech, endangered languages, globalization, women and war, exile/migration, eco-literature, prison writing, and science fiction. Such an approach helps us avoid being bound by an “exclusive pact with the nation,” even as it creates exciting opportunities for conversations beyond the provincialism of any given locale.
In the Best European Fiction 2011 anthology, forthcoming from Dalkey Archive, Colum McCann writes: “The concept of the global writer is a relatively new one. There has always been the Sri Lankan writer, for example, or the English writer, or the Canadian, or indeed the American. It is only in recent years that a writer like Michael Ondaatje – born in Sri Lanka, educated in England, a Canadian citizen who wrote his first novel about a black American jazz musician – was able to comfortably fit the phrase ‘international mongrel’ into the discourse. We are increasingly familiar with our hybrid sense of nationality: that wherever we are can be coupled with wherever we once were. Writers can carry the weight of a couple of extra countries: if you put the original brick in your pocket, you can still swim the river. We’re not shattered by our multiple hyphenations” (xiii). That captures the essence of the current moment, I think.
To cite another example, the recently revised Longman Anthology of World Literature eschews any national labels for the authors included in the anthology, at least on the table of contents, and also intersperses the lineup of authors with various sections called “Perspectives,” “Crosscurrents,” and “Resonances,” in which the major authors can be read as if in an echo chamber of complementary texts and cultural, historical, and political contexts. That sort of echo-chamber effect dovetails nicely with my own sense that we’re living in an era of “words without borders.”
What was the catalyst? What cued the change in how WLT organized its book reviews, and how it brought a thematic approach to content rather than a geographic one? And have you noticed any shift in responses from readers since then?
I think the immediate catalyst was our growing perplexity over how to classify many of the authors whose books were being reviewed in our pages – in a globalized era, with writers living in so many different countries and speaking and writing in more than one language, and as geopolitical identifications constantly shift, a category like “Africa and the West Indies” is no more helpful than classifications based on religion, socioeconomic status, or political affiliation – or eye color, for that matter. Too, the sort of postcolonial atavism inherent in such categories seemed increasingly untenable. So, we decided to make the switch, and our readers have responded quite favorably. Book reviews and essays remain the predominant content in our pages – more than fiction, poetry, interviews, and all our other regular departments combined – so as long as we continue to canvass the most exciting and accomplished literature in the world, we feel like we’re fulfilling our editorial mission.
To take up the example of our (current) issue, devoted to "Writing from Modern India," in my editor’s note I discuss the difficulty of “representing” Indian literature in a country with ten major languages (Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Marathi, Punjabi, Tamil, Telugu, Urdu, Kannada, and Oriya) in addition to the lingua franca of English. Due to space constraints, we were only able to include a sampling of work by twenty representative authors in our print edition, with ten more on our website, but in the end, the majority of the work included in the issue is by authors whose creative output is primarily in English. In our Autumn 1969 issue, almost entirely devoted to “Letters of India in Transition,” Nissim Ezekiel surveyed the “vast and heterogeneous landscape” of Indian literature, only to admit that “the complexities of the literary scene in India defy generalization” (485). The same could be said for all of the major national literatures and even the most endangered languages, from Arvanitika to Yuchi, which represent worldviews that encompass a thousand different realities for every cliché.
Your example of the current and 1969 issues about literature in India raises an interesting point: with a magazine that has had the advantage of a long view, what does it take to decide to return (or not to return?) to particular parts of the world for an in-depth focus? How do you build on what you’ve published in the past, rather than repeat it? Or perhaps repetition isn’t necessarily a bad thing...
To answer your last question first, we inevitably return to authors, countries, trends, and themes that continue to resonate with our readers. Any attempt to “capture” the essence of a thing, however, is only a momentary eddy in time’s river, so it’s almost impossible to repeat what we’ve done before – literature itself is a constantly shifting phenomenon, not to mention the mutability of the contexts (cultural, social, historical, etc.) in which it is created and received. Ultimately, to borrow an aphorism from Marcus Aurelius, “What prevents a work from being completed becomes the work itself.” Namely, we continue the Sisyphean work of presenting world literature in full knowledge that it’s always going to be fragmentary and incomplete – but hopefully not futile!
Even so, as WLT enters its 85th year of continuous publication in 2011, we can look back through our pages and marvel at the mosaic they contain, like a kaleidoscope slowly turning. Doing so is especially gratifying now that we have a complete digital archive of our first 80 years, available through JSTOR, so readers have access to a remarkable range of our content, which would otherwise be available only in library stacks.
Looking ahead to 2011, we have special issues planned on the interanimations of literature with both science (January) and sports (May); the contemporary literary scene in China (March) and Italy (July); the state of poetry (September); and post-Soviet literature in Russia, twenty years after the fall of communism (November). The ideas for special sections come from three main areas: (1) authors themselves or members of our board of contributing editors, who often serve as guest editors in their areas of expertise; (2) from our own editorial brainstorming and areas of interest; and (3) often from our students here at the University of Oklahoma, many of whom volunteer as interns for us during the school year and often know some of the best cutting-edge work being done in a given area. In fact, students have been the driving force behind recent special issues on graphic literature, endangered languages, performance poetry, and food culture by serving as guest editors; writing author profiles, book reviews, and travel “Outposts”; and interviewing authors.
Beyond our base here at the university, we also stay connected to the literary scene by attending writers’ festivals like PEN World Voices, the Gothenburg Book Fair, and the Feria Internacional del Libro in Guadalajara. And since we can’t attend every book fair, we also have a robust tradition of bringing authors to Oklahoma for our annual festivals of international literature and culture centered on two programs that we sponsor: the $50,000 Neustadt International Prize for Literature, which has been called the “American Nobel,” and for which a jury of eight or nine prominent writers comes to Oklahoma in odd-numbered years to select each new winner; and the Puterbaugh Conferences on World Literature, which have featured some of the world’s best writers over the past forty years, including Jorge Luis Borges, Mario Vargas Llosa, Maryse Condé, Czeslaw Milosz, Kenzaburo Oe, J. M. Coetzee, Orhan Pamuk, and Bei Dao. So if we can’t go out to the world, we bring the world to our front door. Ivar Ivask, one of my predecessors as editor who launched these two program back in the late 1960s, once described WLT as both “a secret inland harbor ... a wide-open port offering a place for the exchange of literary ideas” as well as “a lighthouse that radiates the light received back abroad” (1976). So the work of WLT continues, as both harbor and beacon.
About the Images of Daniel Simon: The first photo was taken by Simon Hurst and the second was by Alba Simon.