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Fusion Literature

Roll through any city and you’re bound to encounter a fusion. In cooking, fusion is when you take elements of more than one cuisine and bring them together to get, say, a Korean riff on Southern fried chicken or the Hawaiian take on pizza. Even my little town has a restaurant that advertises their Italian-American-Thai food.

Now, turn your attention towards music. So much of our contemporary music is a fusion of eclectic styles. The last concert I attended was a band that blended traditional Australian didgeridoo, African drums, and dubstep. Art, cooking, music – the modern approach is fusion, and that holds true for world literature, as well.

What is World Literature?

Before we go any further, let’s be clear on our terms. World literature means writing that circulates widely beyond the borders of its country of origin. For literature to truly be considered world literature, it has to speak to people of more than one nationality. Even books that are very much influenced by their country of origin can rise to become world literature if they contain that insight into human nature that transcends borders.

Take the American classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. This quintessentially American book might be about the South before the Civil War, but it reveals insights into the human heart, the nature of loyalty and courage, family, and morality in ways that are meaningful even for those outside of the U.S.A.

Influences on World Literature

Literature, in many parts of the world, has undergone a profound change in the 20th and 21st centuries, in part through changes in technology, communication, and warfare. In the aftermath of the First World War, literature took a dark turn. It’s no wonder – writers were inspired by a conflict with the potential to cause more death and destruction than had ever been seen. In the wake of World War I, writing also became much more experimental.

As we passed World War II and the rapid expansion of technology and communication, artists (writers included) had more potential to share new ideas and express themselves than they had ever had in history. The experimentation from the early century continued, and as writers came more in contact with ideas from other cultures, they had more with which to experiment. And now, when ideas are shared in an instant, writers have a nearly limitless palette of flavors from which to choose and the freedom to question any assumption. In essence, contemporary world literature is a literary fusion.

Contemporary World Literature

To illustrate this idea, I present to you a few examples. Haruki Murakami, a current Japanese novelist, published a novel in 1985 titled, in translation, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. The term pastiche means a work that honors another through imitation. Murakami’s literary fusion shows his love for things as diverse as the American hard-boiled detective fiction of Raymond Chandler and the dark and obtuse societies described by Franz Kafka.

While the main influences come from the middle of the 20th century, most of the book can best be described as cyberpunk, a sub-genre of science fiction that mixes advanced technology with broken societies. Detectives, Kafka, and cyberpunk – talk about a fusion! And yet there’s also something particularly Japanese about the book. Murakami made use of a distinction between Japanese pronouns to establish the tone of the book, and that’s not something that’s easily translated.

July’s People by Nadine Gordimer is a very different book, but it’s also an example. Gordimer sheds light on the tense racial situation in South Africa in the early 1980s by writing her version of the events about to come. In the book, she shows a country torn apart from within, and through the main characters she questions assumptions about race, gender, religion, power, and culture.

The book predicts the near future, and in that way it borrows from the tradition of science fiction. But Gordimer, a South African, also took her cues from the American writer Hemingway. She makes what is left unsaid in her book as important as what is said. Finally, she creates a story that is completely African, dealing with African issues in an African setting, with people steeped in African culture, and she makes it speak to readers well beyond the borders of her continent.

Lesson Summary

World literature is writing that circulates beyond the borders of its country of origin. Over the past 100 years, literature has become darker and more experimental, and this change has only increased as technology has advanced. Today’s writers are free to draw upon ideas from a variety of cultures and time periods to create the literary fusion that is modern world literature, and they’re not afraid to question and challenge long-held assumptions.

Haruki Murakami pulls elements of detective fiction and the dark vision of Franz Kafka and blends it to make a cyberpunk pastiche with a Japanese perspective. Nadine Gordimer questions ideas on gender, race, and more in her South African novel that speaks to people well outside that country’s boundaries.

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