How reading fiction can help students understand the real world

Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, who died in 2013, wrote stories that offer students from all disciplines valuable insights about the world they want to fix one day. EPA/Frank May

The real world is often overwhelmingly complicated. Literature can help. This is true at universities too: courses in comparative literature offer students new insights into their chosen disciplines by unlocking new, varied perspectives.

How can those studying political science truly grasp the terror of living under a dictator? Perhaps by reading Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat, a magnificent historical novel about the tyrannical Trujillo regime in the Dominican Republic. Students who read it are unlikely to forget the dizzying Cold War political intrigues that led the US to first support Trujillo and then implement sanctions against him.

In area studies, students must learn about the politics of postcolonial government. Chinua Achebe’s 1966 novel, A Man of the People, explores how rapidly post-independence revolutionary zeal can turn venal as the corrupt, greedy postcolonial elite seizes the reins of power from the coloniser only to further strangle the majority.

I would suggest that teaching these and other subjects - history, economics, sociology, geography and many others - can only be enhanced by including novels, short stories and artistic feature films. Students will also benefit from learning the methods of critical reading that are inherent to literary study. In this article I will explore why this is the case, focusing largely on the important but contested field of international development studies.

Why development is about more than economics

International development studies cries out for a literary component precisely because it is such an ideological and normative subject. “Development” is itself a term that should demand ideological evaluation. It is more than economics. This is made clear by the UN’s Millennium and Sustainable Development Goals. These reiterate that “development” also focuses on cultural change, such as gender equity through empowering women and girls.

But the syllabus of almost any international development studies course contains a heavy dose of development economists: Amartya Sen, Joseph Stiglitz, Jeffrey Sachs. Or, if the professor is slightly more left-leaning, there will be works by anthropologists like James Ferguson and Arturo Escobar or brilliant political science professor Timothy Mitchell. Why only these? This is an area in which books in the humanities and arts are pertinent, yet one never sees a postcolonial novel on these syllabi.

It is frankly criminal. Development was constituted as a field of study and area of practice during the years of decolonisation after World War II. This was the very same time period which spawned the birth of what is today called postcolonial literature. But international development studies courses seldom broach the fundamental question of what is truly meant by development. Developing to what? For whose benefit? Under whose aegis? This question, however, is interrogated in a vast body of excellent fiction.

I have prescribed Nuruddin Farah’s 1993 novel, Gifts - inspired by Marcel Mauss’ classic ethnography The Gift - to my students. When development aid from powerful countries is donated to impoverished 1980s Somalia, a fine line is walked by both the West which “gives” and the Somalis who “receive.” The book is a long meditation on the tightrope act that teeters between donation and domination. Certainly my students learned more about how it really feels to be the recipient of donor aid from this novel than any of our social science readings, which were mostly written from the donors’ point of view.

Exploring different points of view

This isn’t to suggest that such novels are stand-ins for “native informants”, who are perceived to be experts about a culture, race or place simply because they belong to it. Quite the contrary. They should be read as literature, which literary critics like Mikhail Bakhtin describe as a jumble of competing viewpoints depending on language that always struggles to convey actual truth.

Point of view might be an easier concept for students to grasp at first than Bakhtin’s theory. It is a basic narrative technique that is explored in Literary Criticism 101 because it can change the way a story is told or perceived. In the rich 2006 film Bamako the people of Mali put the World Bank on trial to determine why their poisoned “gift” of development aid has left the country with such a debilitating debt burden.

From the World Bank’s perspective, development might mean one thing but for those “beneficiaries,” it means something quite different. Art has the power to convey that point of view with visceral impact. Isn’t this essential for international development students who aim to help the “other” to “develop”?

Room for myriad insights

The end state of “development,” which is implied but hardly ever explicitly theorised in international development studies, is “modernity” and becoming “modern”. This is a subject on which literature and literary theory can offer myriad insights.

Zakes Mda’s wonderful 2005 novel Heart of Redness depicts the tale of a contemporary village in post-apartheid South Africa. Here, two groups of villagers hold radically different positions on what development means to them. Does it mean street lamps and a casino resort that will bring tourists? Or maintaining a more “traditional,” environmentally-sustainable lifestyle albeit with some “modern” amenities? The villagers’ differing positions are also informed by their different views on their history of colonisation.

History is, of course, essential for understanding any subject. For this reason I’ve not restricted myself to postcolonial literature only in teaching my classes. Robinson Crusoe, first published in 1719, is an excellent novel for introducing the study of British imperialism which is a prerequisite for understanding our contemporary global cultural economy.

Pushing for positive change

In our globalising world, the stakes could not be higher. Many of our students will end up making policy, allocating aid, driving the global economy. They will change the world. Literature and humanistic thinking enable them to change it for the better.