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

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - Mulosige (Multilingual locals, significant geographies: a new approach to world literature)

Reporting period: 2019-01-01 to 2020-06-30

Does “world literature” mean literature written in English or translated in “world languages”? Or literature that circulates globally? Is there a single system or field of world literature? How can we study world literature beyond Europe without flattening it into a mirror-image of Europe but paying attention to its specific histories and phenomena? How can we study and theorize together Anglo- and Francophone literatures and literatures in African and Asian languages, in ways that do not simply reinforce the current privileging of Anglophone and Francophone writing?
In the context of renewed scholarly debate on world literature and the global claims of the publishing market, the project “Multilingual locals and significant geographies” (MULOSIGE), directed by Francesca Orsini at SOAS, University of London, argues against simple and 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, not “world literature”. The picture of a unified global literary map with stable centres and peripheries and a single timeline, the project argues, bears little resemblance to the multilingual world of literature, which consists of many “significant geographies” specific to language, group, and genre, and of multiple, fragile and often unexpected trajectories of written and oral 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 aims to establish a multilingual and located approach to world literature. It seeks to develop alternative categories for thinking about world literature and methods for studying and teaching multilingual texts and societies, and to highlight geographies of literary production and circulation that global models render invisible. 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 has three strands: North India, Horn of Africa, and Maghreb, each with a postdoc and a PhD student attached. The North Indian strand is led by the PI, the Maghreb strand by the Senior Researcher Karima Laachir, and the Horn of Africa by one of the postdocs Sara Marzagora. The project is doubly comparative, within each region and across the regions; it also actively seeks further comparisons with other relevant regions particularly in Asia and Africa.
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” 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.)

We organized eight workshops and conferences (four at SOAS, two in partner countries in Delhi and Addis Ababa, two in other EU country in Paris) and Naples have 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), and 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), three have resulted in special issues of journals, two in edited Open Access volumes.
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;
- There was a 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);
- Pseudo-translations and relay translations were much more influential than direct translations in the diffusion of Asian poetry to Western readers in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, raising questions of multiple authorship, literary echoes, and the creation of “oriental” diction; relay translation should possibly be identified as much 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, and it invites study across platforms."