By: Disha Acharya
“So, these women were risking their life for reading books? For literature?”
“Wow! Sometimes I don’t even take school seriously but these women were going to these discussions even when they were not obliged to!”
“We take our own schooling so casually sometimes and we should realize our own privilege.”
“I don’t know if I would put my life on the line just to read a few books.”
“I absolutely would have joined these discussions! These women had something they believed in so passionately! I would love to have that!”
These are some of the student responses to Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran. These students were part of “Readings in Literature by Women,” a 300- level course which had not only English majors but also majors from Engineering, Computer Science, and Biology among others. This class comprised of all women save for one male student and was in the danger of not making, as many students thought it was going to be a “boring class with women’s problems and who wants to read about that?” During most semesters, the class would not be offered as there were few takers, but I was fortunate that it made when I had the opportunity to teach it. My area of research and emphasis is Victorian women’s literature with a transnational focus and I wanted to attempt the same cross-national approach to teaching this course.
It is easy to fall into the multicultural approach by inadvertently turning the course into a “cultural safari”; this makes the educators’ role more challenging as one wants the students to have an intersectional approach towards the local, national, and the global. My focus was to make the students see how women in Tehran surreptitiously reading banned books might be having similar experiences with a patriarchal setup in their private and public space as Lizzy and Laura in Goblin Market trying to traverse the “goblin men” in nineteenth century England or Andal in eighth century India trying to express her passionate love for God. Teaching World Literature is a practice with very specific intellectual outcomes in mind. It is a deliberate political choice made with the hope that it will help the students rethink, re-strategize, and reshape the way they perceive the world. The impulse to think that one is superior and that it is futile to read world literature as “no one person can change anything” (this quote is from a student in my class on World Literature) can be exceptionally challenging to traverse. Reading about the women in Reading Lolita in Tehran, some students expressed that there can be no value in reading about women in Tehran as “we can’t help them” and we “have little to no agency.” This kind of rhetoric becomes especially exigent in the classroom of the South. The literature of protest clashes with value systems and religious beliefs in the classroom of the Deep South.
Teaching a World Literature class in an atmosphere of rigid resistance requires not only careful planning but also a lot of thinking out of the box. It involves a lot of “mapping”; i.e., assignments which asked students to locate Iran and India on the map. While reading Sindbad’s adventures in One Thousand and One Nights, students were surprised that the collection of folktales were not from England. This revelation led them to wanting to research more on the tales and comparing the various popular adaptations. From not wanting to read “children’s stories,” they came up with their own research questions. They discussed in class how it was problematic that in the eighteenth century, Antoine Galland “collected” the stories and translated them into French. After watching a 90’s TV series based on Sindbad, a very animated discussion took place as the lead actor who played Sindbad was white. The only people of color in the series were the extras and there was only one character who was black but it was ironic that he could not talk. It was an interesting and at the same time a heartening moment in class when they wanted to discuss issues of race, representation, and translation after being resistant to discussing these issues at the beginning of the semester. Reading One Thousand and One Nights led to a chain of illuminating moments in class wherein the students started with questions about translations and representation of people of color in mainstream media and ended up with their childhood reminisces of Popeye the Sailor meets Ali Baba and Forty Thieves and thinkingthe story was American in origin. Making the classroom into a critical thinking space is an onerous task in the South where religious values sometimes take precedence and stop students from questioning existing narratives not only of other cultures but also of their own humanity.
In the current political climate, it has indeed become more necessary for students in a literature classroom to be opened up to literatures from other cultures as they can then examine their own prejudices, biases, and opinions and be more willing to practice empathy, compassion, and concern. Even if at times, I have hit a wall and have had some failures in the classroom where no amount of planning, brainstorming, or creativity seemed to shake the students out of their apathy, it is still worth the time and effort for them to be challenged in their world views by educators introducing world literature to them. They can no longer afford to remain indifferent in the face of current political events locally or globally. The need of the hour is that more concerned citizens are required who can help build a more tolerant and culturally competent community. As a woman of color from India and an educator who has taught in the Deep South, I feel that educators have now more than ever a very key role to play in how the next generation and how the coming times shape up. As educators, we are accountable for making our students global citizens who will play an active role in a more accepting and self-reflexive society. “Gurus” are teachers who not only teach the texts of the courses but also work towards the students’ inner and spiritual evolution and inspire them to explore their world to make it a better place by kindling the flame of knowledge.
Disha Acharya is an Associate Professor of English at New Mexico Military Institute (NMMI), Roswell, where she teaches Myths and Folktales and World Literature. She completed her doctoral degree at University of Louisiana at Lafayette and taught there for eight years before moving to New Mexico in 2020.