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Expressing Diversity in World Literature

Instructor: Anna Hiller

Anna has taught world literature in several universities and has a Ph.D. in Spanish Literature.

The lesson discusses some of the ways in which linguistic diversity, cultural norms, and community values are expressed in literature, particularly through fiction and poetry.

Diversity in Literature: Constellations in a Sky Full of Stars

Night Sky in Desert

Imagine being in the Australian Outback, way out there in the desert. There aren't any towns for miles. There is not even a lamppost to guide you on your path. You decide to sit down for a minute and do some stargazing. When you lie on your back and look up, there is a multitude of stars like you've never seen. You can see the entire universe, it seems! You stare at the beautiful spread of the Milky Way for a long time, and as you do, patterns start to emerge in the night sky--little communities of stars and the spaces between them start to come together like paintings made out of light. You can see a bird here, a kangaroo there, all made out of stars. Your imagination is taking flight and it is limitless, just like the universe. You are overwhelmed by the beauty and immensity of the stars above your head. When you leave the desert, you start to see that the same kind of infinite possibility is equally present in the world around you. All the people you see are like the stars. The communities they make are like the constellations you perceived in the night sky. We may group together in different formations, but we are all part of the same universe.

Literature is a universe unto its own, with uncountable 'stars,' and the stars are the works of literature we read. Like the night sky, literature has its own 'constellations.' These are the communities of writers from various regional, ethnic, and cultural groups who express their diverse values, attitudes, and ideas through writing. This lesson will discuss how this diversity appears in literature, expressing the realities of linguistic diversity, cultural norms, and visibility of marginalized communities within a dominant culture.

Fiction That Finds Its Basis in Fact

Fiction is made up, right? Some of it surely is, of course. Anything with a dragon can be considered a fantasy, for example. When literary fiction is based in the concrete realities of life, however, sometimes it can have as much fact as fiction. For example, some authors write in dialect, trying to capture the way language is actually spoken in their community. Language is an important part of how a community recognizes itself. A good example of this is Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God which she wrote in the dialect of the African-American population of rural Florida. Hurston's novel captures beautifully the linguistic features of that particular community. Many books have appeared in recent decades that express the realities of being bilingual in the United States. Writers such as Sandra Cisneros, Julia Alvarez, and Junot Díaz all write stories that walk the border between Spanish and English, using words from both languages to reflect how Spanish-speaking communities interact with themselves and others. This phenomenon of using words from two different languages or registers is called code-switching and is part of the daily lives of millions. Language, when it is written as it is spoken, is a direct way of communicating the human features that make each community unique.

Cultural Rules, Cultural Norms, Past and Present

Literature also reflects cultural norms. For example, the works of Jane Austen show what life was like in the early 19th century. Certain things were permitted by society back then and others were not, and those rules often look nothing like today's much more permissive world. Austen's novels show us today what it was like to live in such a regulated society. In this way, literature can be a window on the past.

Contemporary works also contemplate cultural norms, usually by contrasting the values and beliefs of a subculture or marginalized community with the general rules of the dominant culture. Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City, for example, weaves together stories from the LGBT community in San Francisco in the 1980s. Maupin's stories contrast the values of his community with American society as a whole, often finding more similarities than differences. Stories and novels like Maupin's that reach out from the margins of society serve an important purpose. They highlight injustices and differences, but they also draw attention to our common humanity. Literature is a way of resisting the dominant culture by giving voice to the particular truths of marginalized and oppressed communities.

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