ICLTS Seminar Series | Han Suyin and the Language Politics of (Third) World Literature
Co-presented by the Departments of International Comparative Literature and Translation Studies and Asian Studies
Han Suyin and the Language Politics of (Third) World Literature
Dr Fiona Lee (University of Sydney)
Scholars are increasingly paying attention to the impact of English’s global hegemony in facilitating the resurgence of world literature in the arenas of literary scholarship, publishing, and translation. English’s dominant world status is supported by the widespread belief that it is culturally neutral, a notion that postcolonial literary criticism has long challenged by pointing to the imperial conditions that enabled its international spread. Rather than simply dispel the myth of English’s neutrality, this paper explores how the language acquired its significance as such and underlines the key role of Third World nation-building in this regard. The work of Han Suyin (1917–2012) is a productive site for examining the above. A prolific writer who styled herself as a spokesperson of China to the English-speaking world, Han lived in Malaya from the 1950s to the 1960s, during the transition from colonial rule to formal independence amidst the burgeoning Cold War. During these years, Han actively contributed to the heated debates taking place in literary and intellectual circles on the politics of race, language, and nationhood. Notably, her views were shaped by her participation in the 1962 Afro-Asian Writers Conference in Cairo and by her understanding of China’s position in the Third World. Drawing on archival research, I examine her essays and speeches on these subjects to understand how she negotiated with the use of English, viewed in the Third World as the language of imperialism and neo-colonialism on one hand and as an indispensable tool of international diplomacy and cultural exchange on the other. In doing so, I consider how her insights contribute to ongoing debates on language politics in literary studies today.
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