Another Perspective on World Literature and the WLT Book Club

Today I am happy to bring y’all an interview with Rob Vollmar, the WLT Book Club’s sponsor. Since I’m not going to be in Norman next semester (more on that to come), I thought anyone interested in joining the club should hear about it from someone who is going to be there. So I asked Rob some questions about the importance of world literature and sharing it with others, and here’s what he said!

Brooke: Tell us about yourself, your work with world literature, and why you sponsor the WLT Book Club.

Rob: My name is Rob Vollmar and I am the book review editor for World Literature Today magazine. I sponsor the WLT Book Club because introducing students to the diversity and power of literature from around the globe is an important part of our unit’s mission. I also enjoy interacting with students and sharing ideas about the world we live in back and forth.

B: Why do you think reading world literature is important – both for students and people in general?

R: Literature is the mirror by which a culture can see itself in development. For the same reason, it is vital for students to be exposed to viewpoints and ideas well outside the American culture. Literature is a way to explore different cultures, locations and time periods without ever leaving the comfort of one’s home. The reader gains so much and, I like to think, develops an identity as a citizen of Earth rather than merely that of the country in which they happened to be born.

B: Why do you think people should join the WLT Book Club?

R: I feel confident in saying that the books we read in the WLT Book Club are quite unlike anything that students have the opportunity to explore elsewhere on campus. We read books by contemporary writers from all over the world, some of which actually come to the meetings during the Neustadt and Puterbaugh festivals to talk about their work. Being part of the WLT Book Club gives students access to people, writing and ideas with which few organizations can compete. Plus, our food game is on fleek.

B: What do you see for the WLT Book Club in the 2017-2018 academic year?

R: We’re going to be engaged in new member recruitment initiatives in the Fall and we hope to expand our meetings to include outreach to the community, perhaps reading to children at libraries or people in retirement homes as a way to share our love of reading with others. We also have a full Neustadt jury coming in the fall, which will feature some very exciting writers that club members will have the opportunity to meet. In Spring 2018, German novelist Jenny Erpenbeck will be on campus for the Puterbaugh festival and that will, again, provide students with the opportunity to meet an internationally recognized author of enduring literature!

Khayy’am Day

On April 21, I attended the opening of the second annual Khayy’am Day. This day celebrates the life of Omar Khayy’am, a prominent Persian poet and mathematician. A statue of him sits outside the newly renamed Farzaneh Hall.

The reception was relaxed and casual. I ate baklava for the first time. I’m not the biggest honey or pastry person, but I’m trying to be a more adventurous eater. I watched a Persian calligrapher write as well. I have no knowledge of the Persian alphabet or language, but his work looked beautiful.

Amid this, Persian-language students recited poems by Khayy’am. The poetry reading drew me to the event. I could only stay long enough to hear a few poems, but I think the students did an excellent job. After the recitations, faculty members explained their meanings. My favorite line was something like “I am the ocean and the pearl inside the ocean.” I think the metaphor captures how someone can be both fierce and gentle, loud and quiet.

Unfortunately, I left for class before the day’s lecture about Khayy’am, but I enjoyed the exposure to Persian culture. I also liked the reminder through Khayy’am’s poetry that many feelings are universal to the human experience.

“Revolutionary Women: Gender Politics in 1917 Russia” Lecture

To celebrate International Women’s Day, March 8, I went to the lecture “Revolutionary Women: Gender Politics in 1917 Russia” by Dr. Rochelle Goldberg Ruthchild.

Similar to the Arabic Talent Show last semester, I attended this event because it focused on a culture outside of my usual area of interest. It also incorporated a competent I enjoy, like the talent show. As a Women’s and Gender Studies minor, I have an interest in feminist topics.

Dr. Ruthchild explained how women’s demonstrations helped trigger the Russian Revolution. Despite date discrepancies that result from the Russian use of a different calendar, these protests took place on International Women’s Day in 1917, making them a well-timed topic for the day’s lecture.

Dr. Ruthchild laid out the reasons these women were successful in their endeavors for change, connecting the reasons to their gender. For example, male soldiers who were sent to control and shut down the demonstrations would not fire into the female crowds. They saw men as a threat, but they could not bring themselves to harm their mothers, sisters, wives, daughters – people they were taught to protect. I liked this because it highlighted the particular strengths of women in these types of situations.

Events carried out by women, while important in the moment, are often overlooked by history. Because of this, I’m always glad to learn about them and develop a more true and complete picture of the world.

Arabic Talent Show

On December 2, I attended the Arabic Talent Show put on by the Arabic Flagship Program. I decided to attend the show because, as mentioned in the previous post, I enjoy performance art. I have also not had a lot of exposure to Arabic culture, preferring Africa and Latin America to the Middle East and Asia, so I thought this event would be something different.

The program started out with a performance by the OU Belly Dancing Club, which I was delighted to learn exists. Their first dance was folk inspired, though later in the night they performed a more modern dance.

Much of the night’s entertainment came in the form of videos produced by Arabic language students. While some of the videos had English subtitles, many of them did not. Arabic not being my foreign language of choice, I did not fully understand what was happening. Presenters explained the videos in English before the viewings, but I know I missed things. It was strange to have people laughing all around me and not know why.

However, while that was uncomfortable, I think those kinds of situations are important for me to experience as a white, English-speaking American. I am not often uncomfortable around others, at least in that way. I do not often feel alienated or other. But I should know what that feels like since so many others do. I want to be able to empathize with those people and hopefully help alleviate such pain for them.

The show ended with a musical performance entitled “Oud Exhibition” on the program. Two men, one playing a string instrument and one playing some sort of drum, performed. It was a beautiful way to end the evening.

The 2016 Neustadt Festival

This year the Neustadt Festival took place October 26-28 in honor of Dubravka Ugrešić, a writer from the former Yugoslavia and the winner of the 2016 Neustadt Prize.

To prepare for the festival, the WLT Book Club read an excerpt from Ugrešić’s The Museum of Unconditional Surrender. The book has a distinct style. The whole thing is composed of vignettes and snippets. Part One consists of 22 numbered pieces, the longest only a few paragraphs. Part Two is split into more conventional chapters, of which we only read one, but they are broken up into similarly short segments. I love books with unique styles. I like seeing something different, a new method of expression.

TMoUS’s style also fits well with its topics and themes. Ugrešić focuses on memory, the small things our brains remember and the way our minds connect them together. She writes a lot about photographs and how they affect our memories. The writing style really shows the reader what she’s trying to say.

I did not make it to all of the festival’s events due to time limitations, but I did manage to attend three: the opening night reception, the performance of ‘Who Am I?’: A One Act Comedy, and the banquet. Both the opening night reception and the banquet were fun events that honored Ugrešić. People made speeches about her brilliance, and she and others read excerpts from her work. During the banquet, she officially received the Neustadt Prize.

‘Who Am I?’ was a surrealistic take on a story from Ugrešić’s book Lend Me Your Character. While literature is my first love, theater is still an art that I enjoy immensely. I am very happy to have been exposed to both forms of  Ugrešić’s work during the festival. The set was brilliant. It was built out of dozens of egg cartons and had so many opening and closing compartments. Having two actors play the main character, one to portray inner Alice and one to portray outer, was another great move. All of the cast did a wonderful job.

WLT Book Club End-of-Term Social

the-life-of-elves-coverThe WLT Book Club has been short on meetings this semester. So far we have only had three: one to kick off the semester, one to discuss The Vegetarian by Han Kang, and one to discuss an excerpt from The Museum of Unconditional Surrender by Dubravka Ugrešić. But still, attendance has been up, and I’m hoping it will continue to rise as we enter the spring semester.

Along those lines, this post is to advertise our end-of-term social! The social will take place Dec. 9 at 11:30 a.m. in Monnet Hall 110. (For those of you who don’t know, Monnet Hall is on the North Oval. It says “law” on the outside.) Lunch will be provided.

During the social we will be handing out free copies of the next book we will be reading: The Life of Elves by Muriel Barbery. Go here to learn more about this French work of literary fantasy. We will be meeting to discuss it at the beginning of the spring semester.

On top of this great novel, everyone in attendance at the social will receive a free copy of the latest edition of World Literature Today, an OU-based literary magazine about world literature, entitled “Women Writers.” This is a history-making edition as it is the first whose entire focus is on women.

If you like reading great literature from around the world or just need a break from the stress of Dead Week, please come by! To learn more about the WLT Book Club, visit our Facebook page or email robvollmar@ou.edu to be added to our email list.

Looking Back & Starting Fresh

The spring semester was crazy for me. I have to admit that I overloaded myself. Taking twenty hours is not an easy thing, especially when you’re also trying to be involved on campus. However, it’s over, I survived, and now that I’ve had a summer to relax and reflect, it’s time to prepare for the fall semester.

Swahili Club was not officially reinstated last semester, a decision made by the SGA. I continued meeting with Jacob, the previous club president, as often as possible, but thanks to his Fulbright (!!!), Jacob will be in India this year. While I am very excited for him, this means I have to study Swahili on my own.

I was paired with a new OU Cousin last semester. Her name was Xiyang, and she was from Beijing, China. She left at the end of the semester but plans to come to OU again. Having an interactive Cousin was great. We celebrated my birthday and the Chinese Spring Festival together. We also attended many events together, such as a gymnastics meet and a production of Thoroughly Modern Millie.

Xiyang & I Meeting Xiyang & I Birthday
Xiyang & I Barbeque

While Xiyang was amazing, I won’t be signing up for OU Cousins this fall. Last semester I learned that stretching myself between too many activities, even ones that don’t individually require a large time commitment, causes both my enjoyment and performance in those activities to decrease. This semester I want to narrow my focus to the activities that are most important. I want to figure out what I want for my future and become involved in things that help accomplish that.

That said, I would like to announce that I will be the president of the WLT Book Club this upcoming year! Now that Rob, our advisor, has completed his first year at OU, we’re hoping to promote the club and its meetings more. He and I will be working together to select the book list for next semester. If anyone has any suggestions, they would be greatly appreciated. :)

I have one or two ideas for other ways I might want to be involved in international groups on campus this semester, but nothing is official yet. We’ll just have to see what comes.

Talk again soon!

An Update on My Plans (International Groups & Study Abroad)

Toward the beginning of the semester, I put up two posts, one telling you which international groups I was joining and one the study abroad programs I was considering. Over the course of the semester, things have changed. New opportunities have appeared, and I’ve made some decisions.

Now I’m going to share those decisions with you.

In my previous post, I mentioned OU Cousins, International Advisory Committee, and WLT Book Club. Since then, I have also joined the Swahili Club.

In regards to OU Cousins, I still want to take part next semester. However, my Cousin has not been very responsive to my attempts to meet up. I may email the program and tell them this in hopes I will be paired with a new Cousin.

Unfortunately, I do not think I will be continuing with IAC next semester. I just don’t believe it’s the right place for me. It hasn’t helped me connect to other cultures in the ways I thought it would.

WLT Book Club and Swahili Club are both definitely on the agenda for next semester.

I am fairly certain I will still have class at the time of the WLT Book Club meetings. Yet, since the meetings are only once a month (we had three this entire semester), I don’t see it as a huge obstacle. This club has provided me with some great opportunities, and I am enjoying the exposure to new literature immensely.

I am very excited to continue learning Swahili. While I am not very far into the process, I can already tell this is a language I will love. While I don’t dislike learning French, I do not connect to it the way I do with Swahili. Along with my enjoyment, I have practical reasons for wanting to learn this language now. I believe it will put me ahead if I travel to Tanzania this upcoming summer, where I heard we will be given daily lessons. It is also a language covered by the Critical Language Learning Scholarship, which I am considering applying for in the upcoming years.

Speaking of traveling to Tanzania, the Journey to Africa: Tanzania program is still very much on my radar. While I haven’t made much progress, I have started the application for it.

Beyond that, my plans have changed. Even if I go to Tanzania, it will not be my first trip abroad. I had to petition, but I have received permission to go on the trip to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil being hosted by the College of International Studies during Spring Break. The program is called Politics and Ecology in the Marvelous City. I thought this would be a good opportunity for me to experience Rio before spending a whole semester there (something else that is still on my radar).

I also previously mentioned the Honors at Oxford program. After more thought, I’m not sure how beneficial this program would be for me, especially with its high cost. While I would love to go to Oxford, traveling is expensive and requires practicality. I believe other programs better align with my goals, such as the Critical Language Learning Scholarship mentioned above.

So, that’s where I’m at. I’m sure new developments will arise once the new semester starts, but right now, I am ready for a break (which will include daydreaming about Brazil).

The Neustadt Festival

The Neustadt Festival was held from October 21 – 23 this year. I attended many of the panels. I am also lucky enough to have R.C. Davis as my freshman mentor and was therefore invited to attend some of the events not open to the public. In this post, I will be summarizing both the public and private.

On Wednesday, October 21, as I mentioned in a previous post, Porochista Khakpour visited the WLT Book Club to discuss her book, The Last Illusion. She was one of the jury members who convened here to decide on next year’s Neustadt winner. It was a wonderful experience to have her at the table with us, to hear about her personal experience coming to the United States as a child and how that affected the writing of her book. After the meeting, I attended her talk, “Reimagining the Shahnameh in Persian Literature,” where she again discussed her book.

I have never considered myself very interested in Persian/Iranian culture. However, after reading The Last Illusion and hearing Porochista speak about it, I have decided to read the Shahnameh. There are some excerpts from it in my English textbook, but I plan to purchase the full edition soon. Porochista recommends this one: http://www.amazon.com/The-Shahnameh-Persian-Book-Kings/dp/0143104934.

Instagram Photo with Porochista Khakpour

That same evening, I attended the opening night reception. Many of the jury members read their poetry or excerpts from their prose. Nathan Brown, an Oklahoma poet, also read some of his pieces. Nathan was my teacher for the OSAI Creative Writing class this summer. It was great to see him again.

Thursday night, I ate dinner at R.C.’s house at the same table as Meshack Asare, this year’s Neustadt award winner.  I listened as he answered the questions of high school students who had traveled from Colorado to attend the festival. I spoke to some of the Neustadt family while enjoying very tasty food.

Friday, there were more public events. I only had time to attend the roundtable discussion about Ghana literature and culture. As I have mentioned many times, Africa is the area of the world I am most interested in. This discussion was a wonderful opportunity for me. Afterward, I bought a book by one of the panelists, a Ghana author named Nii Ayikwei Parkes, called Tail of the Bluebird. I am eager to read this book as I believe it will have an authentic African feel, something I have been wanting from a book since I finished Things Fall Apart. I also bought a book of poetry by one of the poets who had read at the reception, Amit Majmudar.

Finally, that night, I attended the Neustadt banquet with my friend, Rehan Zafar. It was a unique experience, and I felt so blessed to be there. Meshack Asare was officially given his award, and Dubravka Ugresic was announced as the 2016 award winner.

Thank you so so much to R.C. for giving me this opportunity. It was amazing. I don’t even have the words to express the happiness it brought me.

Reflection #13

How do you hope to incorporate your experiences as a Global Engagement Fellow into your future career? How much of an impact do you think it will make? What will you do to maximize its impact?

I have always wanted to be an editor. Specifically, a children’s book editor. Children’s books range from picture books to young adult books. However, being a Global Engagement Fellow and deciding to double major in International Studies have made me consider another area of literature.

American publishing houses do not just publish and produce books written by Americans. They also buy books that are popular in their respective countries. After the rights paperwork has been squared away, the first step these books go through is translation. This is not something I wish to do or will probably be able to do. However, after the book is in English, American editors get a shot at the story. This is where I would come in.

I believe having firsthand knowledge of other cultures will aid me in editing books that depict those cultures. I will know how to keep the authenticity of the story and the parameters it is set in while making the work shine in English. This is not only good for the benefit of the book. Stories teach their readers in indirect ways. Representation matters, both for those who are being represented and those who are not. By maintaining and strengthening the culture portrayed in a book, I can help spread awareness and tolerance of that culture. I might assist in sparking a passion for the global community in someone else.

People read good stories. Good stories impact people. By supporting the process of making international stories “good,” I make an impact on the American mindset in relation to other countries.