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Culture and Education

Is there more to American Literature than English?

Koji Toko
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts, and Sciences, Waseda University

When you hear “American literature,” what works come to mind? Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, perhaps? Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea? J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye?

What do all of these novels have in common? That’s right—they’re all written in English. This may seem obvious given that they are from the United States, but it's actually not as simple as you may think.

The territory that is now the United States was once inhabited by numerous Native American tribes. These were people with a diverse range of languages, cultures, and mythologies, and their oral poetry traditions are well documented and represented as the beginning of American literature. It was only later that the North American continent was colonized by the British, French, Spanish, and other Western powers. The only part of the country that was actually under British control was the eastern seaboard, with vast tracts of interior and southern land held by France, Spain, and Mexico.

We consider the US "a nation of immigrants" because of the many people who migrated to America from all over the world, bringing with them their own languages and culture. These new Americans not only hailed from Europe, but also from Japan, China, the Korean Peninsula, and other parts of East Asia as well as from the Middle East and Africa. These immigrants continue to flock to the US to this day. Of course there are also countless immigrants from Central and South America.

All of this raises an important question. Because of its history, the US has a staggering number of spoken languages and a diverse set of cultural traditions. So why is it that we only think of English as the language of the US? And why, when we speak of American literature, do we only think of works written in English?

I first began wrestling with these questions while working on the translation of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Shinchosha) by Junot Díaz. It is the story of an immigrant family who moves to the US from the Dominican Republic, an island nation in the Caribbean Sea. The book is written in English with Spanish mixed in—but there are no English translations given for the Spanish words. For a reader who only understands English, the work is a minefield of opaque, unintelligible patches and yet, it received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, one of the most distinguished American literary awards, and has become a best seller with over a million copies sold.

The fact that The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was so well received indicates an important shift in American society. A 2010 national survey put the country’s Hispanic population at over 50 million—more than the entire population of countries like Spain or Columbia. This makes the US the second-largest Hispanic country in the world after Mexico. Once an invisible minority group, Latinos have now begun asserting their own cultural identity in the United States—and with that, the common perception that English is the language of America has begun to crumble.

In the past, works written by Americans without an Anglo-Saxon, Caucasian heritage were considered “minority literature,” a category that included Jewish and African-American works. There was some prejudice towards these works, which were often seen as politically astute but inconsistent in terms of literary quality. Now, however, it seems that this perspective is gradually becoming a thing of the past. The landscape is changing as talented authors whose literary texts ring out in multiple languages alongside English continually emerge on the scene. Today, it is immigrant writers like Aleksandar Hemon, who also writes in his native Bosnian; the Nigerian Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who peppers her works with Igbo phrases; and Yiyun Li, known for stories primarily set in China, that continue to breathe life into modern American literature. I talk more about these developments in Towards a Planetary Reading of 30 Books in the 21st Century and Being Planetary for Survival:24 Books in the 21st Century (both from Shinchosha).

As discussed above, American works of literature are not exclusively written in English. In fact, the same is true of Japan’s literature-it is not solely written in Japanese. The Ainu people also make their home on the Japanese archipelago, while the Okinawan islands are home to a remarkable degree of linguistic diversity. And it doesn’t stop there—our country has many residents whose native languages are Chinese, Korean, or even Portuguese or other Western European languages—and they have written about their experiences in Japan in their various mother tongues. Writers like Kazuo Ishiguro and Karen Tei Yamashita draw from their Japanese heritage as they produce literature around the world. As we begin perceiving works from these diverse authors as part of Japan’s literary tradition, we will begin to greatly expand our notions of what Japanese literature truly represents.

Koji Toko
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts, and Sciences, Waseda University

Koji Toko was born in Fukuoka Prefecture in 1969. He is a translator, American literary scholar, and professor at Waseda University. His published works include The Birth of Pseudo-American Literature (Suiseisha), Towards a Planetary Reading of 30 Books in the 21st Century (Shinchosha), Being Planetary for Survival:24 Books in the 21st Century (Shinchosha), and The Rapturous Reader [Kyoki no Yomiya] (Editorial Republica); he has also translated The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and This is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz (co-translator, Shinchosha), Don DeLillo’s The Angel Esmerelda (co-translator, Shinchosha), Factotum by Charles Bukowski (Kawade Shobo Shinsha), and more.