Forget English! Orientalisms and World Literatures, by Aamir R. Mufti

Eva Shan Chou on a study of how anglophone texts have come to overshadow many vernacular writings

February 25, 2016
Salman Rushdie speaking during interview
Source: Asia Society

The terms “orientalism” and “world literature” have passed from scholarly writing into everyday usage, in a positive example of intellectual work influencing our common consciousness. But just when we might comfortably assume “orientalism bad, world literature good”, Aamir Mufti, a comparative literature scholar, adds a perplexing twist by proposing that the two concepts are deeply intertwined, both historically and today.

World literature is now an economically significant genre in publishing, and the related literary scene has become notably transnational. Mufti points out, however, that “world literature” is based on a concept of a world made up of an assemblage of nations and hence of “national cultures” whose outlines are traceable to orientalist definitions by external powers, and to violence. Moreover, the rules of anglophone mobility across borders are social phenomena that select for today’s version of orientalism.

The writing that Mufti examines intensively – from India and, secondarily, Pakistan – is in English, which today dominates world literature as the medium both of writing and of translation. Although he engages with scholars of orientalism and world literature, what makes this work particularly interesting is the author’s knowledgeable focus on India. From the very beginning, he shows, the scholar-orientalists’ placement of Brahman Sanskrit texts at the centre of “Indian civilization” skewed reality; a second distortion followed via the modern Hindi that was created for a modern nation through “the logic of indigenization”. As the “social geography” of access to English emerged, one outcome was the anglophone novel. As it has become India’s representative genre in the eyes of the world, it has rendered local literatures invisible to the point where Salman Rushdie (pictured) could declare, in Mufti’s damning quotation, “‘Indo-Anglian’ literature represents perhaps the most valuable contribution India has yet made to the world of books”, and it is “a stronger and more important body of work than what has been produced in the 16 ‘official languages’ of India”.

Mufti’s historical perspective and insightful analyses of India’s anglophone novel generate constant echoes with the realities of anglophone writings in other cultures. He points out that the anglophone novel “is never written or spoken out of hearing range of a number of its linguistic others”. Such novels’ efforts to represent the rich, lived vernacular speech, he shows, result in the use of “Indianized English” as a surrogate, or a glossary is supplied, packaging local colour with local words. Above all, Mufti is concerned with the tendency of the anglophone novel to become naturalised and “erase the scene of politics and power” that marked its emergence.

Arguably only an in-depth analysis of one anglophone literature could be as illuminating, but this work leaves one wanting to know about all the numerous other places (I won’t use “nations”) where history has made English a literary language that has overshadowed vernacular literatures.

A word on the puzzling imperative in the eye-catching title. It seems to be addressed by the author to anglophone criticism, but it seems to mean its opposite: don’t forget English, don’t forget that the language that you employ is not just “naturally” English, don’t forget that the emergence of world literature is “the transformation of literature into a world-encompassing reality”. Readers of this fine study are not likely to forget.

Eva Shan Chou is professor and chair of the department of English, Baruch College, City University of New York.

Forget English! Orientalisms and World Literatures
By Aamir R. Mufti
Harvard University Press, 304pp, £25.95
ISBN 9780674734777
Published 25 February 2016

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