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Multilingual locals, significant geographies: a new approach to world literature

Periodic Reporting for period 4 - Mulosige (Multilingual locals, significant geographies: a new approach to world literature)

Reporting period: 2020-07-01 to 2021-03-31

Does “world literature” only mean literature written in English or translated in “world languages”? Or literature that circulates globally? How can we study world literature beyond Europe and theorize Anglo- and Francophone literatures together with literatures in African and Asian languages, and in ways that do not simply reinforce the current privileging of Anglophone and Francophone writing? The project “Multilingual locals and significant geographies” (MULOSIGE), directed by Francesca Orsini at SOAS, University of London, argued against summary models of “one-world thinking” that posit the existence of a single world literary system, where what does not circulate globally is provincial, not good enough, or not “world literature”. The picture of a unified global literary map with stable centres and peripheries and a single timeline bears little resemblance to the multilingual world of literature, which consists of many “significant geographies” specific to languages, people, and genres, and of multiple trajectories of written, oral, and digital circulation. By exploring the fractured and fractious “multilingual locals” of literature in North India, Morocco, and Ethiopia—three regions with different multilingual histories, colonial experiences, and strong oral traditions—the project has proposed a multilingual and located approach to, and new keywords for, world literature. As globalisation becomes more and more our reality, it is vital that we don’t become blind to its complexities and to the many worlds that make up the world. The project had three strands: North India, Horn of Africa, and Maghreb and was comparative within each region and across the regions, while actively seeking further comparisons across the Global South.
The research agendas of he team included: for North India, multilingual works, book history, and the circulation of literature in magazines in Hindi, English, and Urdu (Orsini); the “lyricisation” of poetry in Urdu and the circulation of Urdu and Persian poetry in English and in the West, the lyric as a global genre (Burney); and historical consciousness and “reading together” historical fiction in Hindi and Urdu (Clift). For the Maghreb: “reading together” Francophone and Arabophone literature in Morocco (Laachir); the “multilingual local” of Spanish Morocco and its “significant geographies” (Goikolea-Amiano); and Sufi genres and “significant geographies” in and beyond the Maghreb (Blalack). For the Horn of Africa: “significant geographies” and Ethiopian intellectual history (Marzagora); and “reading together” and multilingual “traces” in Oromo and Amharic novels (Kebede).
A regular reading group and visits by “critical friends” (51 in total!) greatly increased our horizons and enabled cross-area conversations on concepts and methods, and the discovery of areas of convergence (colonial education policy & literary tastes; nation-state linguistic policies and censorship; the circulation of lyric poetry; women’s tracts; Cold War internationalisms; contemporary orature and the circulation of chapbooks, etc.). Our website has become a repository of short essays, translations, podcasts and resources (course syllabi and reading lists) to enhance the visibility of texts and genres from our regions, particularly in the teaching of world literature.

We organized nine workshops and conferences (four at SOAS, two in partner countries in Delhi and Addis Ababa, two in other EU country in Paris and Naples) which explored: Multilingual locals and significant geographies before colonialism (SOAS, June 2016), The idea of “location” in/for world literature (Paris, June 2017), The West-Eastern Lyric (SOAS/Kent, November 2017), Comparative colonialisms (Delhi, December 2017), Comparative Perspectives on Gender in the Literatures of the Horn of Africa, the Arab World and India (SOAS, March 2018), The Form of Ideology and the Ideology of Form (SOAS/PPC, Jan 2019); Reading Together (Naples, April 2019), Oral Traditions and World Literature (Addis Ababa, December 2019), and New Keywords and New Directions in World Literature (with Queen Mary University of London, online, March 2021); three have resulted in special issues of journals, two in edited Open Access volumes. We also organised an online literary festival in collaboration with the Museum of London (Multilingual London, 28 Nov 2020) and outreach activities at N4 Library in Islington, London.
Team members have also experimented with joint publications (Laachir, Marzagora and Orsini: “Significant geographies” for Journal of World Literature and “Multilingual locals and significant geographies” for Modern Languages Open; Marzagora and Kebede: “Literary networks in the Horn of Africa: Oromo and Amharic intellectual histories” for Handbook of African literature).
The project website ( includes review of books and translations relevant, as well collaborative course outlines which encourage collaboration with teachers of world literature courses and has been one of our premier avenues of dissemination and impact.
- Colonial language and cultural policies (especially in Morocco and India) had much greater impact at the level of idea than of practices and tastes; the persistence of older tastes and the concomitant rise of language nationalisms produced more bilingual and less hierarchical tastes than previously acknowledged (Laachir), at least in the colonial and early post-colonial periods;
- The surprising traffic of books in Asian and the Middle Eastern languages into Europe, particularly London, in the late 19c, but that did not translate into an acknowledgment of their modern literatures as part of “world literature” (Orsini “Absent Presence”) and curiously localised authors who had been part of the broad Persian cosmopolis (Burney);
- Relay translations were much more influential than direct translations in making Asian literature visible to Western readers in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries (raising questions of multiple authorship, literary echoes, and the creation of “oriental” diction); also for making African and Asian (and Latin American) literatures visible to each other at the time of decolonisation. Relay translation should possibly be identified as more important for world circulation than direct translation;
- The geographically small Moroccan Spanish protectorate exercised a crucial role in providing a seeming alternative to French colonialism, and gave Moroccan intellectuals a comparably safe haven but also access to different literary networks and resources stretching not just to Spain but also to the Arab diaspora in North and South America (Goikolea, critical friends Calderwood and Fernández Parrilla)
- Magazines were a very influential form of world "literary activism" that made visible and helped circulate both recent and older literature from Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East - enabling early visions of the global literary South that the current Anglophone-centric publishing world has made invisible. (Online magazines seem to be the exception)
- Oral literature is very much part of world literature for its widespread circulation and continuous reinvention, but in order not to imagine it only as residual "oral traditions" we need to broaden our definition of literature, our understanding of its functions, and include verbal art, performance, and texts across platforms.