The missing Bengali literature in U.S. classrooms

written by

Suswana Chowdhury

on May 17, 2016

 

Editor's Note: The poet, Shaheed Quaderi who is both quoted and in the video below passed away on August 28, 2016. 

H

    emingway, Dostoyevsky, Faulkner. Most U.S. educated students will at least recognize the names of those authors even if they have not have read the actual works penned by the writers.

 

Shaheed Quaderi, Jibanananda Das, and Rabindranath Tagore are probably less familiar names in the Western world but are all highly honored and distinguished writers in Bengal.

 

The commonality in the former set of writers is that all three are Western.

South Asian and specifically Bengali writers are largely left out of U.S. classrooms. A look at the curricula for high school and college general English classes reveals that a majority of the works on the list are written by European and American authors.

 

High schools across the country offer AP English Literature, an exam taken by more than 367,000 students. While there is no required or standardized reading list and teachers are encouraged to design their own course, on a list of 500 of the most popular AP Literature books there are only a handful of non-western authors, namely Khaled Hosseini (The Kite Runner) and Chinua Achebe (Things Falls Apart).

 

A similar pattern appears in undergraduate core English literature courses across college campuses in the City University of New York (CUNY).

 

The map below, which pins the different authors included on the syllabi, shows at a glance the largest cluster of readings is in Western Europe, followed by America and East Asia, leaving whole regions across the world untouched.

 

 

Baruch College makes the most effort to create a more holistic and global syllabus in their “Great Works of Literature” course which all students are required to take regardless of their major. The syllabus includes East Asian writings and a short story by Tagore titled Punishment.

“We specifically say that we are going to offer exposure to not only European literatures but also non-European literatures,” said Cheryl Smith, director of the Great Works Literature courses. Professors are allowed to structure their classes in whichever way they want but the inclusion of a non-western text has to be “more than a token gesture,” Smith said.

 

“You can’t just teach one Chinese text and the rest of your texts are Western European and American.”

 

The inclusion of Tagore in the class is not all that surprising. He is one of the few writers from Bengal whose work has been acknowledged internationally. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913.

 

However, not everyone in the Bengali community regards Tagore’s accolade as a true integration of Bengali writings into the Western world.

 

“Tagore won the Nobel Prize for his English writing, not for his Bengali writing,” said Hasan Ferdous, who works in the Chief Committee Liaison Unit of the United Nations.”

 

Ferdous argues the West focused on only the poems of Tagore that turned him into a sage and Christ figure leading to a misunderstanding of his work. “Tagore’s poetry even though it has elements of spirituality, it’s mainly about love and nature; he’s a pantheist.”

 

He added, “In fact if you read the Nobel citation, it lauds Tagore for continuing the European tradition which is completely false.”

In regards to Tagore’s Bengali writings, Shaheed Quaderi, an award winning poet in Bangladesh, doesn’t think the existing English translations do the original transcription justice.

 

“Most of the translators are from India so they don’t have a good grasp of the Bangla language,” he said. “We haven’t had a good translator pick up Tagore’s work yet.”

 

Baruch’s English department describes the goal of the “Great Works of Literature” course as “setting major literary works in their social, historical, religious, economic, and political contexts, while covering a truly global range of cultures.”

 

Ferdous thinks Bengali literature from the pre-independence years from British rule would better fit the class objective, offering rich material for students to learn from.

 

“If you read fiction from that time period you will see there’s a common thread of any people struggling for liberation,” he said. “We developed our Hemingway if you want, a genre that reflects the life as it is - people’s struggle, people’s hope, and people’s aspirations.”

 

He added that the literature was a main component of the revolution for Bengal and added to its strength and success.

 

"Here is a country, here is a place where people took arms and very often literature was a component. Even Tagore’s songs became our main weapons, our tools to fight against the colonizers. So Western students would learn to understand how literature, how culture for that matter can be effective tools in peoples struggle for emancipation.”

 

Smith agrees that reading literature from around the world helps to humanize people and create connections. “I believe as a a literature professor that you understand humanity and our common humanness and common interest and needs and our differences through literature,” she said.

 

According to the 2014 Migration Policy Institute (MPI), approximately 277,000 Bengali immigrants and their children live in the United States. Of that number, about 48 percent arrived during or after 2000. Bengali immigration to the U.S. is relatively new which could be a factor in the underrepresentation of its literature.

 

The MPI also reported that one of the highest concentrations of the Bengali diaspora is in New York City. Quaderi, himself, lives in Jamaica Queens among several other distinguished poets and writers. Quaderi holds a monthly poetry recital in the basement of his building inviting the Bengali literary community to recite and listen to some of the culture’s best poems. He calls the event “Kobita Shonda” or “An Evening of Poetry.”

 

“Kobita Shonda was created to help share and spread the works of our best poets,” he said. “I would’t be opposed to having Western people attend if they’re interested in learning the music of our language,” he added.

 

There are several other Bengali organizations in New York City that host cultural events throughout the year to celebrate the community.

 

Ferdous thinks it’s only a matter of time before someone translates Bengali literature and shares it with the rest of the world.

 

“I personally believe that good literature even if its written in a foreign language will not remain hidden for long because someone will discover it. And we have great writers, great diamonds waiting for someone to discover.”

In regards to Tagore’s Bengali writings, Shaheed Quaderi, an award winning poet in Bangladesh, doesn’t think the existing English translations do the original transcription justice.

 

“Most of the translators are from India so they don’t have a good grasp of the Bangla language,” he said. “We haven’t had a good translator pick up Tagore’s work yet.”

 

Baruch’s English department describes the goal of the “Great Works of Literature” course as “setting major literary works in their social, historical, religious, economic, and political contexts, while covering a truly global range of cultures.”

 

Ferdous thinks Bengali literature from the pre-independence years from British rule would better fit the class objective, offering rich material for students to learn from.

 

“If you read fiction from that time period you will see there’s a common thread of any people struggling for liberation,” he said. “We developed our Hemingway if you want, a genre that reflects the life as it is - people’s struggle, people’s hope, and people’s aspirations.”

 

He added that the literature was a main component of the revolution for Bengal and added to its strength and success.

 

"Here is a country, here is a place where people took arms and very often literature was a component. Even Tagore’s songs became our main weapons, our tools to fight against the colonizers. So Western students would learn to understand how literature, how culture for that matter can be effective tools in peoples struggle for emancipation.”

 

Smith agrees that reading literature from around the world helps to humanize people and create connections. “I believe as a a literature professor that you understand humanity and our common humanness and common interest and needs and our differences through literature,” she said.

 

According to the 2014 Migration Policy Institute (MPI), approximately 277,000 Bengali immigrants and their children live in the United States. Of that number, about 48 percent arrived during or after 2000. Bengali immigration to the U.S. is relatively new which could be a factor in the underrepresentation of its literature.

 

The MPI also reported that one of the highest concentrations of the Bengali diaspora is in New York City. Quaderi, himself, lives in Jamaica Queens among several other distinguished poets and writers. Quaderi holds a monthly poetry recital in the basement of his building inviting the Bengali literary community to recite and listen to some of the culture’s best poems. He calls the event “Kobita Shonda” or “An Evening of Poetry.”

 

“Kobita Shonda was created to help share and spread the works of our best poets,” he said. “I would’t be opposed to having Western people attend if they’re interested in learning the music of our language,” he added.

 

There are several other Bengali organizations in New York City that host cultural events throughout the year to celebrate the community.

 

Ferdous thinks it’s only a matter of time before someone translates Bengali literature and shares it with the rest of the world.

 

“I personally believe that good literature even if its written in a foreign language will not remain hidden for long because someone will discover it. And we have great writers, great diamonds waiting for someone to discover.”