Let’s be frank: reading literature from other cultures is often a challenge. Or it can be exhilarating and life-changing. At times it can be all these things in quick succession, as the Goodreads reviews of critically-acclaimed books from Nigeria and Haiti demonstrate:
She’s so observant and able to convey human emotion in such a relatable way, even when describing experiences, I have never come close to experiencing.
As compared to
The characters are so flat they should be able to slide under a door trouble-free. The characters don’t even bother to play their role with its limited definition.
–Goodreads reviews of Half a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
This is a quiet but beautiful book. While it may not shimmer with literary acrobatics, its prose is clear as water, and the narrative structure literally tugs the reader through it.
As compared to
The story itself really didn’t interest me at all. Sure there were moments that I couldn’t put it down, but most of the time I was bored by it. Maybe because I didn’t share any ties or connections to it.
–Goodreads reviews of Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat
Nearly every Christian has looked to other cultures for art that reflects faith, if only through The Bible‘s ancient Middle Eastern peoples. This is an experience we all share, and it seems wise to admit that at times we may walk away from a book more frustrated than enlightened. On the surface alone there are the strange words and the unfamiliar place-names of translated literature. Then there is the vulnerability of trusting an author to lead you through these unfamiliar places, teaching you the look and feel of Singapore, Swaziland or Salvador. As a reader, you likely cannot arm yourself with predictions of whether in a particular interaction you will likely find friendship or violence, humor or grief, wisdom or buffoonery, or all of the above. If you’re like me, you tire easily. Like me, you may get cranky. You may wish for the relative comforts of local lit.
But we should probably get used to it, because it has never been easier to enjoy art from Christians around the world, and the rewards are significant. One of the greatest treasures of being a Christian the 21st century–if you live in a region that is connected to other parts of the world—is our access to faith-based art from foreign places.
Even William Shakespeare, whose plays some consider universal tomes of human experience, has bewildered his share of audiences. One of my favorite illustrations is Laura Bohannan’s wonderfully entertaining essay, “Shakespeare in the Bush.” Working as an anthropologist with a people-group in West Africa called the Tiv, Bohannan describes the moment when she realized that even the great Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark can be tripped up by cultural differences. Proudly telling this canonical story to her Tiv hosts, she expected the men to sit back and enjoy the experience. Instead they interrupted her constantly, explaining that ghosts can only be summoned by witches, that Claudius should have been free to marry Gertrude, that Ophelia could not possibly have drowned herself. To this audience of storytelling aficionados, Shakespeare’s plot lacked even basic understanding of human nature and the supernatural.
The audience doth protest too much, methinks.
If great writers like Shakespeare can’t achieve universality, does this mean that no literary work can truly be appreciated outside its context? How much do we lose in translation? When I am fifty pages deep in a book whose dialogue is half-English, half-patois and I can’t guess what the protagonist is thinking, what’s to keep me from throwing it across the room?
Well, for one thing, it may be that this patois-speaking protagonist invites us to visit one of the most exciting Christian cultural scenes in the world. Susan VanZanten in “Reading and Faith in Global Community” describes a shift in the locus of Christian literature into the global South. The main thing to say about this is that it’s about time we saw more publication of writers from Central and South America, the Middle East, Africa, South Asia and the Pacific. After all, some of these southern hemisphere cultures are quickly becoming the new centers of Christian thought and belief. In postcolonial Africa, for example, Christian cultures are more dynamic than they were during the generations when its practices were imposed by Europeans. The number of Christians on the continent has “increased tenfold to 360 million,” and she predicts that the number will reach 600 million by 2050 (336). One of the things that makes this remarkable if the fact that so many of the people groups who have embraced Christianity once knew it as the religion of their colonizers. That is to say, God has still met them in Christian traditions, despite the tremendous baggage some of these traditions carry as vehicles of oppression. We can, of course, credit the emergence of this “new Christiandom” to God’s ability to work in even the worst circumstances. One of Van Zanten’s key points is that seeing Christianity as automatically a remnant of colonization is remarkably short-sighted. Many cultures of the global South practice Christianity in their own idiom. “For example,” says Van Zanten, “many African Christian scholars claim that Christianity is an African religion, not an import” (332). In short, these Christian groups are living proof that God is at work in the world.
What benefit does this have for citizens of the global North? The opportunities here are enormous, if we can learn to read world literature with a traveler’s eye. That is, if we can read with the expectation of strangeness and even discomfort. Not that we are seeking the exotic, necessarily, as though world literature were the readerly equivalent of a safari. Rather, it can be the sort of experience that Allison Giles describes in her reflections on Robert Alter’s Genesis: an opportunity “to be swept into the mystery—both the mystery of God’s presence and his striking absence.” In books like Adichie’s fictional Half a Yellow Sun or the memoir of Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom, we see how God can bring reconciliation and forgiveness even for unforgivable crimes. In Uwem Akpan’s Say You’re One of Them, we meet characters whose faith preserves them in the midst of civil war. When we read the work of Caribbean writers like novelist Edwidge Danticat and short-story writer Pauline Melville, we see how Catholic doctrine has been blended with other religions from the Americas and northern Africa. We watch how these blended traditions inform the daily lives of young women growing up in Haiti and Guyana. These and many other literary treasures are waiting for us.
Van Zanten Gallagher, Susan. “Reading and Faith in Global Community.” Christianity and Literature 54.3 (2005), 323-42.
Van Zanten herself says it best:
At this historical moment, does it make sense to encourage graduate students to produce yet another reading of Shakespeare or Milton employing the latest fad in criticism? Or should we be urging them to study Chinese or Spanish or Xhosa, and to read deeply and widely in the newly emerging literature from the south and east, asking the rarely-posed question about the relationship of these texts to Christianity and literature? That’s the way in which we can truly act like neighbors in today’s global world.
We’d love to hear from you! Join our conversation on our Facebook page, Grace Nerds. Use this link to add your thoughts and experiences (please note that you’ll need to “join” the group first. We keep it closed so that participants can speak without worrying about outside judgments).
- Which foreign books or movies have surprised you with inspiration?
- How much should an author, director or publisher translate and/or explain their art when publishing for foreign audiences?