MEI Arabia-Asia Cluster: Arabic Literature and the East: the Possibilities of South/South Comparison   
Date: 19 October 2017 Time: 11:00 AM - 12:30 PM  
Speaker(s): Dr. Gretchen Head
Assistant Professor
Yale-NUS College
Venue: MEI Seminar Room, Level 7
29 Heng Mui Keng Terrace
Block B #06-06
Singapore 119620

(This event is organised by MEI’s Arabia-Asia Research Cluster, as part of its monthly seminar series.)


One of the primary shortcomings in comparative literary studies is that despite calls to think along planetary lines, the discipline remains beholden to a model of core and periphery. Meaning, literatures and cultures from non-Western countries are put in dialogue with those from the West. We might ask, what can be gained from shifting the terms of comparative analysis? What might be learned by thinking along different lines – not center and periphery, the Middle East and Europe or the Middle East and the United States – but instead, horizontal lines of comparison, South/South (in our current understanding of the Global South as a term)? These questions demand that we also ask what new tensions we might encounter when changing the structure of the conversation in this way. This talk will take the form of a workshop in which we will look at a sample of short readings from Arabic literary texts (in translation) that write the East, both from the premodern tradition and the modern novel. Through these texts, we will try to arrive at an interpretation of the particular types of alterity that are constituted by literary representations of the parts of Asia considered decidedly unfamiliar within the Arab/Islamic world. Among the questions we will consider are: What are the primary modes of identity at work in these texts? Is there a way to read these representations diachronically, inside history? What do they reveal about the potentialities and/or difficulties of future comparative work outside of the core/periphery model?

About the Speaker

Gretchen Head is Assistant Professor of Literature at Yale-NUS College and book review editor for the Journal of Arabic Literature. She holds a PhD in Arabic literature from the University of Pennsylvania and was a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley before coming to Singapore. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Arabic Literature, Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics, Portal 9: Stories and Critical Writing about the City, and The Global South, among other journals, and she is the co-editor of The City in Arabic Literature: Classical and Modern Perspectives (forthcoming from Edinburgh University Press, 2018). Her current research project addresses the intersection of space, identity, and genre in Moroccan literature in Arabic (14th to 20th centuries). She is an occasional translator of literary fiction.

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