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Visions of a Literary World Tour

By Sarah Lillo
Visions of a Literary World Tour

Sarah Lillo's reading map.
It started innocently enough in 2011, as I reviewed the IBO’s new Works in Translation list to revise my HL Literature syllabus, I realized I was only familiar with a handful of the texts.
How could this be? I was an experienced literature teacher, a voracious lifetime reader, and a lover of books “off the beaten path.” I earned a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s degree in English Education. Yet, as I perused the list, there was no denying that my exposure to the global literary greats was still fairly limited.
Coincidently, the library at the International School of Uganda was sponsoring a “Read Around the World Challenge” that asked participants to read 10 books from different countries of origin. Alongside my students, I decided to embrace the endeavor.
First, I did what any slightly obsessive literary nerd would: I listed every world literature book I could recall reading and the author’s country of origin. I quickly realized that my literary exposure did not traverse nearly as many national borders as I imagined. Next, I “mapped” all these texts. As I marked my literary travel sites, the strong North American/Western European centricity of my literary escapades became obvious.
As I discovered just how limited my global literary exposure truly was, my personal ambitions shifted: to read a text from every country in the world (either fiction or non-fiction). The ISU library team was extremely supportive of this goal and they helped me find texts from dozens of countries. I added many metaphorical stamps to my literary passport while teaching there.
However, as I returned to the US to pursue my doctorate in 2012, I recognized a profound challenge to my “world literary tour” goal: a lack of global voices promoted, or even accessible, within the US. I was shocked to find that even the most extensive university bookstores only displayed books by a few dozen popular global (non-western) authors. Even online publications were scarce, international publicity minimal, and translations largely unavailable.
I am committed to the development of a literary curriculum that represents a wide range of experiences and views, for stories have the potential to cultivate more knowledgeable and compassionate global citizens. Nearly three years into my challenge, I have read texts from about 140 countries.
I still have a long way to go, however my global literary travels have taken me far enough to face ethical quandaries: Which global voices are heard or silenced, and why? How can I teach “world” literature when my own teacher preparation and cultural background has clearly oriented me towards certain narratives? What could be gained by a deliberate expansion of the literary canon? What does a globally representative curriculum really look like?

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