Print Edition - 2015-01-25  |  Free the Words

The politics of canon

  • The debate over the inclusion of Nepali English writers in a literary canon is a political one
- MIN PUN
The politics of canon

Jan 24, 2015-

Nepali literature in English can be tested by certain tenets to legitimise its canonicity. Even if we use Western tenets to assess the validity of writing, canonicity can be fulfilling. This does not mean that the canonical status of Nepali literature in English has started questioning the Western canon and has started functioning as a counter-canon. But one thing is certain: Nepali English writers, whether writing from within Nepal or abroad, have earned critical acclaim. From this perspective, there is no doubt that Nepali literature in English has already established its canonical status. There are also many who oppose this argument primarily out of political interest, insisting that the very idea of canon does not exist in Nepali literature in English.   

The canon debate

Most interestingly, this ongoing debate, motivated by politics, over the nature and status of canon has been there since the 1990s, much of which is rooted in the question of whether it is the right time to start debating the issue. “In Nepal,” observes Abhi Subedi, “the canonicity of the postcolonial legacy continued to dominate the literary culture even without the use of English.” For him, one of the objections of a canon of Nepali literature in English is the question of authority: who should have the power to determine what works are worth reading and teaching?

Having evolved over six or seven decades, Nepali English literature now stands by itself as a body of literature and extends different literary tastes to a country where English is often considered an important second language. It expanded its horizons to the global arena after the 1990 political change in Nepal when writers like Samrat Upadhyay and Manjushree Thapa started publishing internationally acclaimed works. No doubt, Upadhyay and Thapa can be considered as part of the canon of Nepali literature in English, after Laxmi Prasad Devkota, who pioneered the body of literature and was a canonised writer himself. Should we not start talking of our own making of the literary canon? This question in turn leads to more questions: which Nepali writers and works in English should be included in the canon?

Devkota and after

Following in the footsteps of Devkota, a host of other Nepali young writers who write in English have appeared in the post-1990 period. Sushma Joshi, Rabi Thapa, Sheeba Shah, Ajit Baral, Richa Bhattarai, MK Limbu, and Aditya Man Shrestha are familiar names. Another host of writers come from academic backgrounds. Writers like Abhi Subedi, Padma Prasad Devkota, Sanjeev Uprety, Sangita Rayamajhi, Hriseekesh Upadhyay, Ammaraj Joshi, and Rajan Prasad Pokharel have emerged from university platforms.      

Yet another group of writers emerges from translated works. Ramesh Vikal, Lil Bahadur Chhetri, Parijat, Dhurba Chandra Gautam, Banira Giri, Bharat Jangam, BP Koirala, Vijaya Malla,

Sita Pandey, Parashu Pradhan, Narendra Raj Prasai, Lakshman Rajbanshi, Shiva Kumar Shrestha, Padmawati Singh, and Narayan Wagle are among popular names.    

There are also writers and translators whose mother tongue is not Nepali, but have contributed a lot in this area. To name a few, Wayne Amtzis, Yuyutsu RD Sharma, Greta Rana, Philip Pierce, Larry Hartsell, and Michael Hutt are regular contributors. There is also a list of writers who write in English in the diaspora. This group comprises of Indian Nepalis and Nepalis who permanently live in foreign lands.

But the list of names above does not actually determine the canon; they need to be tested by certain parameters in order to validate their canonical status. If there is a canon as such, should they all be included in it?

The canonisation process

The literary canon is a list of writers and their works, which are accepted as part of an authority in a certain period of time. If canonised, they become institutionalised over time by consistent inclusion on university syllabi and are read widely. Seen in this way, the question of the status of Nepali literary works in English as canonical works has yet to be determined: should they be an important part of the educational curriculum, informed by the literary canon? This question has been consistently debated by both academics and non-academics since 1990.   

Though Nepali literature in English is not only considered a part of the world literature, it is also considered an essential component of Nepali literature. Such developments indicate that Nepali literature in English is entangled in the process of canon formation. Since a discourse of literary canon-making harkens back at least as far as the early 21st century, it is now time to explore the literary canon in question. It is necessary to do so in order to provide Nepali English literature a basis for future development.  

If not canon, what then?

As far as the inclusion of Nepali English literary texts in the educational syllabi is concerned, the growth of English literature in Nepal has been significant after 1990, especially in terms of the number and quality. Its growth carries implications in the field of English language teaching.

Now, schools and universities can choose from literary works in English written by Nepali writers as material for English language classrooms. In the future, this will create a new dimension of discourse on teaching of the English language and literature in Nepal.    

In spite of the debate and controversy over the canonisation of Nepali writers and their works in English, it is important to bring them to the fore, considering English literature produced in Nepal is an evolving discourse within the realm of the Nepali literary world. Together, the political aspects of canonisation should never be forgotten.  

Pun teaches and researches on topics related to Nepali writings in English

minpun@gmail.com

Published: 25-01-2015 09:46

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