Kirsten L. Parkinson is the director of the Lindsay-Crane Center for Writing and Literature at Hiram College.
Teaching world literature is like the parable of the blind men and the elephant. The canon of world literature is so vast, and American students’ experience of that canon so small that they are like the blind men understanding the elephant from just its trunk or tail. One student reads Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Half of a Yellow Sun” and thus imagines world literature is about non-western nations at war with one another. Another student reads Isabel Allende’s “House of the Spirits” and thinks all world literature incorporates magical realism, and so on. Knowing that my course is probably students’ only world literature class, I struggle to represent the richness of the international canon with both breadth and depth. I hope to fuel curiosity about literature and about other cultures that will keep students reading after the semester has ended.
One way I try to make the elephant of world literature coherent is to loosely connect the readings with a theme. In the fall of 2019, that theme was “nation,” and Adichie’s novel was a required text. Beginning with Benedict Anderson’s definition of a nation as “an imagined political community—and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign,” I pushed the students in my class to interrogate how our book accepts and plays with concepts of nation.
“Half of a Yellow Sun” tells of the short-lived African nation of Biafra. The novel’s protagonists see Biafra as an opportunity for personal and national rebirth. As the revolutionary professor Odenigbo says on hearing the declaration of Biafra’s independence, “This is our beginning.” The novel allowed us to explore the slipperiness of Anderson’s definition of nation. For instance, “Half of a Yellow Sun” portrays Biafra imagining itself as a united political community yet discovering fractures in its value systems through the depredations of war. Similarly, sovereignty depends on power. In the Biafran war, Nigeria had superior military and economic power, backed by the British and Soviet governments, and was able to declare Biafra’s sovereignty void.
Adichie’s novel and our discussion of nation raised further questions in my class about citizenship: What did it mean to be Nigerian? What did it mean to be Biafran? What did the characters gain and lose by choosing one nation over another? Our discussions became most heated when we discussed Richard Churchill, a White British character who is drawn to Nigeria by its Igbo-Ukwu bronze roped pots and decides to stay. He falls in love with the Igbo woman Kainene and joins her in the fight for Biafran independence. He learns to speak Igbo and even declares himself a Biafran: “This was a new start, a new country, their new country…. He would be Biafran in a way that he could never have been Nigerian…. He would belong.”
My students were highly suspicious of Richard and his motives as well as his ability to move seamlessly between national identities in a way that the Black characters could not. His fluidity spoke to the power of Whiteness, even in a supposedly independent Africa.
Richard’s ability to switch allegiances turned our discussion to the question of citizenship requirements. What should one have to do to become the citizen of a nation? What should a nation demand of its citizens? I prodded my students to connect this question to their own lives: What should the United States require of citizens? Our conversation became unexpectedly heated over the question of citizenship tests. Some students pointed out that most native-born Americans could not pass the stringent tests required of naturalized citizens. The class was divided on the fairness of these tests.
Some argued that native-born citizens should have to pass the same tests. Other students argued that those of us who were native-born had not chosen to be citizens of this country, whereas these immigrants were asking to be citizens of the United States; therefore, the bar for their citizenship should be higher. I also encouraged them to consider voting and citizenship: Should voting be a requirement for citizenship? Only 61.4 percent of Americans reported voting in the 2016 presidential election, yet our elected leaders make significant decisions about our lives. My students voiced concerns about barriers to voting, including transportation and polling schedules. Nevertheless, in 22 countries around the world, voting is mandatory.
The debate on this topic was similarly lively, but we did not reach a consensus. However, as primarily 18- to 22-year-olds, my students are new voters, and I want them to be actively thinking about the role that they want voting to play in their lives as citizens. These citizenship questions are not simply academic. They impact real people, and they will be issues that my students confront in their careers and their lives. In “How to be an Antiracist,” Ibram X. Kendi catalogs the ways in which the United States has repeatedly denied full citizenship both to native-born Blacks and to immigrants. He quotes Calvin Coolidge in 1924 stating that “America must be kept American,” meaning White and European.
Ninety-six years after Coolidge’s statement, I worry that this sentiment is still far too alive, as powerful anti-democratic forces work to disenfranchise non-White and immigrant voters by expanding gerrymandering, shortening the census count, closing polling places, and discouraging voting by mail. I hope that my students will look back to our reading of Adichie’s “Half of a Yellow Sun” and our conversations about nation and citizenship as one framework for making sense of current events and the role they want to play in them.