Literature for Intercultural Awareness: A “Key to Perception”?

Guest Posts

Literature for Intercultural Awareness: A “Key to Perception”?
Guest Post by Michael Steppat

It has been said that literary works can benefit and advance intercultural understanding. For instance, Mazi-Leskovar maintains that “literature should alert readers to all those who are in one way or another different from the readers themselves. Literature thus encourages inter- and intracultural awareness” (2010, p. 10); “multicultural literature remains one of the sources through which issues related to intercultural communicative competence can be successfully addressed” (2006, p. 278). Wasikiewicz-Firlej (2012) explains that “works of literature enable the reader to observe the world from multifarious perspectives and cherish the diversity of individual perception. The power of literature lies in its unique ability to deeply involve the reader both at a cognitive, as well as emotional level.” Taking Japanese writer Haruki Murakami as an example, Kuryleva and Boeva have found: “The overwhelming majority of the writer’s literary heroes, placed into alien cultural environments, become the participants of intercultural communication” (2010, p. 171). This is not only a feature of recent literature, however. In the very beginning of western literary culture, Homer’s Iliad culminates in a Book 24 which poignantly depicts the furtive (and rather desperate) visit of Trojan ruler Priam in the quarters of the Greek enemy, at risk of his life.

Of course it is more recent developments that are especially relevant for us today. We owe to Edward T. Hall an insight into sources of knowledge that bring to light the concealed snags of what we like to take for granted, what culture “hides” from its own members. In The Hidden Dimension, Hall illustrates this with the desirability of using literary artifacts as “a key to perception”: from fictional works of different cultural origins one may gain data on the experience and perception of spatial distance as “a significant cultural factor” (1966/1982, pp. 94ff.). Some time after this, communication scholar John C. Condon suggested: “The potential of literature and film for our understanding of intercultural relations is considerable, and can be explored both through the analysis of cultural patterns expressed in the works, and in the analysis of intercultural themes, of conflicts and resolutions by the characters in novels, biographies and films” (1986, p. 153). It is hence not surprising that Patrice Buzzanell, studying intercultural adaptation, should develop an argument about career design processes partly by calling attention to narrative fiction, viz. Lionel Shriver’s novel The Post-Birthday World (2012, pp. 85, 91-92): by bricolage, the same set of skills and abilities “can be channeled into different career paths.”

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Author: Center for Intercultural Dialogue

Wendy Leeds-Hurwitz, the Director of the Center for Intercultural Dialogue, manages this website.

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