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South Asian Literature

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South Asian Literature

Although Asian indigenous cultural variations appear endless, that said, China and India have historically, the most widespread influence throughout Asia, (and elsewhere), when compared with other Asian civilizations. Hopefully, the articles, essays, and resources in both sections of this column assist educators and students in their efforts to learn about and from South Asian literature.

Shirley Huston-Findley in “Understanding Cultural Perspectives through Greek and Hindu Theater” (volume 17, number 1, spring 2012) does a superb job of providing a rich substantive essay that assists teachers and students to compare, contrast, and learn from two culturally and globally influential civilizations.

Literature can often convey visceral truths about politics that might be disturbing to rigid empiricists, but are useful in understanding emotions that fuel politics, as much a study of human feelings as a “social science.” Rina Williams in “Poetry, Prose, and Political Science” (volume 24, number 3, winter 2019) uses poetry, novels, and non-fiction works to make the politics of India more understandable for students. She provides both instructors and students who do and do not have a background in South Asia with a deeper engagement and interest in the region than a comparative politics or world history textbook alone can offer.

It is impossible to genuinely understand Transcendentalism in literature or American history without learning about Asian influences on major figures in the movement. A compelling argument can be made that South Asia most influenced both Emerson and Thoreau. Todd Lewis and Kent Bicknell in the highly accessible “The Asian Soul of Transcendentalism” (volume 16, number 2, fall 2001) provide an essay that is ideal for high school or university survey students because of its accessible prose, and the authors’ high level of expertise on Asian belief systems and the Transcendentalists.

I’ve had the opportunity to teach about the Transcendentalists in Asian Studies-related courses and workshops that included American history and literature teachers, and in one American history survey course I taught for my university history department. In considering the Transcendentalists, it is worthwhile, in my opinion, to introduce critiques of their ideas because in every class or workshop I taught that included the topic, participants held divergent viewpoints about the ideas and ideals discussed. For a critique of the Transcendentalists, consider Orestes Brownson (1803–1876), a student of religion, member of the clergy, and political theorist who attained some national prominence as an author and social critic in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. Brownson, at one time a Unitarian Minister, became an initial supporter of the Transcendentalist movement, only later to convert to Catholicism. A supporter of the Democratic Party, Brownson saw his party lose to the Whigs in the 1840 Presidential election and became disillusioned with many Transcendentalists who voted for the Democratic Party candidate, but opposed strong institutions like the Catholic Church that in his opinion helped to ensure ordered liberty and societal stability. The following Brownson essay, “Democracy and Liberty,” was published in at least one edited volume on the American Transcendentalists and appears here courtesy of the History Tools website.

A manuscript illustration
A manuscript illustration of the Battle of Kurukshetra from the Mahabharata. Source: Wikipedia at https://tinyurl.com/2p8nmcvy.

Fritz Blackwell in “Options in Teaching the Mahabharata,” (volume 4, number 3, winter 1999)like Rina Williams, gives readers ranging from those who have no knowledge of the Sanskrit epic to instructors and students who are familiar with the Mahabharata access to a wide range of resources to teach and learn about the work. Blackwell successfully taught a survey-level short course on this classic of Indian literature and philosophy. Even though the article was published over twenty years ago, outstanding resources, most notably various versions of filmmaker Peter Brook’s five-hour epicare available on YouTube and other sources.

Shobna Nijhawan in “Teaching About the 1947 Partition of British India: Literature and Oral History” (volume 23, number 3, winter 2018) demonstrates in her essay how literature combined with oral history leaves readers with powerful and vivid impressions of how the turmoil and chaos following the Partition shattered the lives of ordinary people, and much of her teaching essay especially focuses upon the plight of women.

Other Teaching Resource: The South Asia Book Award 

book cover for Crossing the Farak River by Michelle Aung Thin
2020 South Asia Book Award winner Forward Me Back to You by Mitali Perkins (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2019) for Grades 9 and up and 2021 South Asia Book Award winner Crossing the Farak River by Michelle Aung Thin (Annick Press, 2020) for Grades 6 and above.

Two days after the publication of our November 2021 Digest Exclusive Column “Teaching Asia through Literature” that included the Freeman Book Awards in the “Other Teaching Resource” section of the column, I was delighted to hear from a reader, Emera Bridger Wilson, who is a member of the selection committee for the South Asia Book Award program.

In fact, her communication in part incentivized me to make the topic of South Asian Literature this month’s EAA Digest Exclusive” column.

Sponsored by the South Asia National Outreach Consortium, The South Asia Book Award highlights outstanding books on South Asia intended for children ages four through eighteen. Please visit their website for complete information about the award including submission information.

Digest readers should be aware the “Past Awards” page contains an extensive list of past winners and recommended titles that goes back to 2012. AAS guidelines for EAA preclude inclusion of elementary school-level articles and essays, but readers who are responsible for teaching about South Asia at the middle or high school level are highly encouraged to learn more about books featured in what appears to be an outstanding resource.

Book cover for Forward me back to you by mitali perkins
2020 South Asia Book Award winner Forward Me Back to You by Mitali Perkins (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2019) for Grades 9 and up and 2021 South Asia Book Award winner Crossing the Farak River by Michelle Aung Thin (Annick Press, 2020) for Grades 6 and above.

As many readers know, we are particularly interested in expanding EAA middle school resources, especially ones that relate to state social studies standards, since we’ve determined from research on US middle schools, a disproportionate amount of states, including the most populous states, include middle school social studies standards that focus upon the Indus River Valley Civilization and other early India topics including Buddhism and Hinduism. Many of the middle school standards also include geography. We would particularly welcome reviews (especially by middle school teachers) who’ve used any of the entries in the award program that relate to these topics given they are included in many state standards.

Secondary school teachers, especially world history instructors, are encouraged to submit award-winner reviews since readers who teach world history (and sometimes often their students) constitute pluralities of EAA readers. We will consider reviews of South Asia books from this resource that might be appropriate for literature courses as well.