Foreign literature was never really my thing growing up. I’d read plenty of works from the Anglo-American tradition, from Shakespeare to Mark Twain, but I didn’t know where to begin when it came to works not originally written in English. I also never thought it was that important to read foreign literature—most great works of literature were written in English anyway, right?
Though there are some pretty awesome books from the UK and US, I was seriously short-changing the entire rest of the world in that assessment. By limiting my scope to books originally written in English, I was unknowingly missing out on literary experiences that classic works in English could never give me.
I found this out recently on a study abroad trip to Ecuador, during which I took a class on Latin American writers who have received the Nobel Prize for literature. The first thing I found was that these authors did not have a single qualm about attacking cultural biases I didn’t even realize I had. We tend to focus so much on our own experiences that we forget our way of doing things isn’t always the best. That’s where foreign writers come in, taking things you assume are right and throwing them out the window without a second thought. This opens the door for critical thinking; you can be better informed to reevaluate your own ideas once you know the ideas of other people and cultures.
Foreign literature can help us better understand the complicated world we live in. In many of the works I read, writers grappled with the complex experiences and inheritances of Latin American life and history. Poet Pablo Neruda and novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, for example, both expressed the tension between their cultural heritage and the effects of US involvement in their countries. Foreign writers like these can reveal how complex our world is and teach us to understand and empathize with others as we navigate it.
Foreign literature can also expose us to entirely different literary traditions and innovations. Gabriel Garcia Marquez pioneered a whole genre of fiction known as magical realism. His stories take everyday life and infuse them with a supernatural element, exploring our relationship with the unknown and others in a way that feels grounded. His approach is different from any English author I’ve ever encountered, but if I had continued my trend of indifference to foreign writing, I would never have experienced his unique voice and contributions to the field of literature.
One of the reasons I love reading is because it allows me to access someone else’s mind and emotions, to empathize with characters I’ve never met. Literature’s ability to connect us to other people and ideas becomes even more special when you read works by someone whose background seems completely different from yours. Reading foreign literature can not only give you insight into cultural differences but also show you some things that transcend borders, like Gabriela Mistral‘s internal struggles in her poem “The Other” or the simple joys of life Neruda shares in “Ode to My Socks.” By finding things we can identify with in works from other parts of the world, we can better grasp what it means to be human.
There are many more reasons to read foreign literature than the ones I’ve listed, but the best way to learn them is through firsthand experience. Challenging as it may be, reading foreign literature is massively rewarding. I just wish I had realized its benefits sooner!
Sigma Tau Delta
Sigma Tau Delta, International English Honor Society, was founded in 1924 at Dakota Wesleyan University. The Society strives to
- Confer distinction for high achievement in English language and literature in undergraduate, graduate, and professional studies;
- Provide, through its local chapters, cultural stimulation on college campuses and promote interest in literature and the English language in surrounding communities;
- Foster all aspects of the discipline of English, including literature, language, and writing;
- Promote exemplary character and good fellowship among its members;
- Exhibit high standards of academic excellence; and
- Serve society by fostering literacy.
With over 900 active chapters located in the United States and abroad, there are more than 1,000 Faculty Advisors, and approximately 9,000 members inducted annually.
Sigma Tau Delta also recognizes the accomplishments of professional writers who have contributed to the fields of language and literature.
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