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From International to Postcolonial Literature at Goshen College




In 1973 the English Department at Goshen College inaugurated a new course, International Literature. It may have been the first postcolonial literature course offered in the United States. It certainly was a pre-cursor that, as with the interest in "new literatures" or "emergent literatures," naturally morphed into a study of literature from the postcolonial theoretical and critical point of view.

Evidence for the significance of the course in American literary studies comes from the March 1974 issue of College English, which at that time had as its main mission English pedagogy in higher education. My essay, "International Literature for American Students," was published in that issue along with descriptions of other innovative English courses that nowadays are staples of English curricula: "A Survey Course in Negro [sic] Literature," "The Homosexual Literary Tradition: Course Outline and Objectives," "'Ethnic Literature'—Of Whom and for Whom . . .," along with "A Bibliography and an Anthology of American Indian Literature."

Strangely, the "Ethnic Literature" essay in that same issue of College English cites a course in "Third World Literature" at San Francisco State University that studies texts about Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, Navajos and "Afro-Americans," as well as books by Erskine Caldwell, Jack Conroy, and James T. Farrell. Terminology has clearly evolved since 1974.

Originally, I submitted the essay to Books Abroad, published by the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of Oklahoma, which early on had shown the most interest in "emergent literatures," despite its bias toward the European tradition. The editor who returned my essay because BA did not publish pedagogical essays, added, "How I wish I could have taken a course like that!" In 1977 BA became World Literature Today, the leading journal for postcolonial and global literary study.

The course at Goshen College was mandated by the curriculum committee in order to re-inforce the college's new commitment to international studies, as embodied in the Study-Service Term, which required all students to earn a trimester of general education credits in international education, usually by spending a trimester in a "developing," or "third world," country, led by a Goshen College faculty member. The SST program is still in effect today and, in fact, has led to continuously high recognition for Goshen College in national ratings. International Literature "prepared" freshman and sophomore students for the overseas trimester, offered integrative literary studies for students returning from SST, and served as on-campus international education credit for the few students who, for various reasons, could not spend a trimester abroad.

In my final semester of study for the PhD in English at Indiana University, I was asked to plan and teach the course in the winter semester of 1973. I faced, with some panic, the disjunction between my interest in early Renaissance English drama and third-world literature, totally unprepared. Having read nothing in that area, I turned to librarians at Indiana University and colleagues at Goshen College for suggested texts. I started learning about Chinua Achebe and other now canonic authors in the field.

One challenge was to identify suitable texts. Another was to find texts in affordable paperback editions. The final one was to integrate the texts in an appealing, coherent syllabus—the notion and theme of "postcolonial" not yet identified and formulated.

For coherence, I turned to a universal experience that would unite both disparate texts and widespread cultures with young college students. That theme was the rather obvious one of coming-of-age. Everybody in the world inevitably moves somehow, sometime, through childhood to adulthood. I assumed that this biological and anthropological constant would interact fruitfully with various cultures' varied customs for socializing their young.

For a theoretical construct, I turned to the anthropological reports of "primitive" cultures' initiation customs as compiled by James Frazer in The Golden Bough. Leslie Fiedler's thinking about initiation in American culture was also helpful, as was his distinction between the archetype and the signature (individual exression). My hope was that students would understand and appreciate both universal and divergent cultural experiences as they also found themselves and their own culture in the patterns. To that end, I early on assigned a personal essay in which students dwelt on one particular initiation experience and related it to the concerns of the course.

My search for texts in the first offering of the course yielded plenty of coming-of-age narratives, although not enough, strictly speaking, from truly third-world cultures. Those were The Dark Child by Camara Laye (Guinea 1954), The Good Conscience by Carlos Fuentes (Mexico 1961), My Childhood by Kao Yu-Pao (China 1961), No Longer at Ease by Chinua Achebe (Nigeria 1960), the film Aparajito by Satyajit Ray (India 1956), and an anthology of short stories 17 from Everywhere edited by Lee S. Jacobus. From more established literatures came The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski (Poland 1965), Thousand Cranes by Yasunari Kawabata (Japan 1952), Native Son by Richard Wright (U.S. 1940), and Don Segundo Sombra by Ricardo Guiraldes (Argentina 1926). Yes, it was a heavy reading load—almost a book a week—but the books tended to be short and the students willing.

I look back at that syllabus a bit ruefully in 2017, noticing the irregularities, the absence of eventual classic texts, the texts yoked by violence together and, especially, the absence of women authors and protagonists in the books. One reason was that there were virtually no female writers in such literature in 1973, or their work was not available in convenient form. It was early in the feminist movement and the women students did not object. As one student said, who became a professor of postcolonial literature eventually, "Like other women at the time, in my mind I transferred experience from one gender to another." In the next offerings of the bildungsroman syllabus I used Nuruddin Farah's From a Crooked Rib (Somalia 1970) and works by Kamala Markandaya of India.

Although it was not my intention at the time, one can see in many of the texts the issues that propel postcolonial studies today, especially political domination in Yu-Pao, Kosinski, and Wright and culture hybridization in Laye, Achebe and Ray. In fact, my thinking over the years was not to change the title and the focus of the course from "international" to "postcolonial," since in sending students to developing countries we wanted them to appreciate and understand the new culture, not critique it. As an SST leader myself in Belize, for three trimester in an academic year, I noticed and regretted the personal and social consequences when students critiqued and tried to reform the "system" in which they found themselves.

I continued to use this syllabus, gradually refined, over the first three years I taught the course, which sometimes enrolled as many as 75 students, unusual for an English elective at the time. In subsequent offerings, as the field developed and more books were written and then published in the U.S., the postcolonial shape of the course developed. I eschewed American and European texts, avoided translations and sought feminist texts and consciously chose those with postcolonial implications. On occasion, I was able to justify using Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1899) and Gabriel Garcia Marquez' One Hundred Years of Solitude (Colombia 1967).

Gradually a regional approach to postcolonial issues seemed to recommend itself, and I divided the syllabus into three units, focusing on societies whose authors chose to write in English, the language of their colonizers. Those areas were the Caribbean, Africa and India.

The authors, with sample texts, that served the Caribbean unit were often Miguel Street by V. S. Naipaul (Trinidad 1959), Beka Lamb by Zee Edgell (Belize 1982), The Year in San Fernando by Michael Anthony (Trinidad 1965), Masters of the Dew by Jacques Roumain (Haiti 1956), and The Farming of Bones by Edwidge Danticat (Haiti 1998).

Likewise, the canon of authors, with sample texts, for the Africa unit were Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (Nigeria 1958), The Lion and the Jewel by Wole Soyinka (Nigeria 1959), Master Harold and the Boys by Athol Fugard (South Africa 1982), Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga (Zimbabwe 1988, an homage to Franz Fanon), The Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta (Nigeria 1988) and something by Nuruddin Farah (Somalia), a friend of Goshen College.

And for India, including Hindu and Muslim cultures, Maneater of Malgudi by R. K. Narayan 1961), The Clear Light of Day by Anita Desai (1980), The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (1997), and, of course, Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie (India and Pakistan 1981).

This regional syllabus culminated in my final teaching of the course in 2002, prior to retirement, when I ended the course with Zadie Smith's White Teeth (England 2000), which depicts emigres from all three formerly English colonized areas—Caribbean, Africa, India—interacting in London, the erstwhile seat of British colonialism. Thus did the course lead into what is now known as "diasporic" studies.

Of course, other professors in my department who later taught the course used different texts and organizing ideas.

1973, the founding date of the Goshen College course, should be seen in the context of the chronological development of postcolonial literary studies. The literary concerns reach back to the post-WW2 independence movements in modern empires, but the awareness of the field and the use of the term is much more recent. As Ashcroft, et al, put it, "[F]rom the late 1970s the term [post-colonial] has been used by literary critics to discuss the various cultural effects of colonization" (Key Concepts in Post-Colonial Studies, Routledge 1998, p. 186).

1947 – India independence

1958 – Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart

1960 – Nigeria independence

1961 – Franz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, on the psychology of colonized people

1966 – Journal of Commonwealth Literature (journal)

1971 – World Literature Written in English (journal)

1973 – International Literature at Goshen College

1977 – World Literature Today (journal)

1979 – Edward Said, Orientalism – the early statement of postcolonial theory

1986 – Callaloo (journal for African diaspora literature)

1987 – Gayatri Spivak, theory

1990 – Homi Bhabha, theory

The course International Literature has, in general, followed this trajectory of the field of postcolonial literary studies, even though it is light in theory, as befits a course that is offered as an elective for undergraduate students in any major and that supports the unique pedagogical needs of an "international" curriculum at our liberal arts college

To claim that International Literature at Goshen College was the first offering of a postcolonial literature course in the U.S. would be impossible to prove as well as a bit presumptuous. But it certainly was an early version, or precursor, of the field and evolved into the more focused field of postcolonial studies. Today, by my successors at Goshen College, it has been re-named "World Literature," thus further evolving to accommodate current interests in the larger field of "global literature."

About the Author

Ervin Beck

Ervin Beck, Emeritus Professor of English at Goshen College, is co-editor of The Journal of the Center for Mennonite Writing, author of many publications on Mennonite literature and folk culture, including MennoFolk and MennoFolk2, published by Herald Press, and compiler of the three Mennonite bibliographies linked on the CMW homepage. From 2006-07 he taught English and dramatic literature at LCC International University in Klaipeda, Lithuania. He was on the planning committee for the two Mennonite/s Writing conferences held at Goshen College in 1997 and 2002. He lives in Goshen, Indiana.