I was one of the only South Asian international Arts students at my University, and it made me realize just how imperceptive I was of the cultural narratives that were a part of my own story. Growing up, we read the literature of the Western Canon, watched everything from Disney Channel original movies to The Sound of Music, and listened to the Billboard Hot 100. So while I knew that my culture was a huge part of who I was, my family, my upbringing, and my heritage, I didn’t fully realize the extent to which my ethnicity and my experience of it affected my thinking.
Art & Popular Culture defines the Western Canon as – the body of high culture literature, music, philosophy, and works of art that are highly valued in the West: works that have achieved the status of classics. However, not all these works originate in the Western world, and such works are also valued throughout the world. It is ‘a certain Western intellectual tradition that goes from, say, Socrates to Wittgenstein philosophy, and from Homer to James Joyce in literature.
The word canon itself is derived from ancient Greek to mean a measuring rod or standard.
It wasn’t until my courses on postcolonial and global literature that a sense of other schools of thought and diverse cultural narratives really started to emerge. There were many references made during these classes to the Western canon. Including discussions of how much of what we learn is measured by the same benchmarks and held up against the same achievements as that of the Western world. This is no surprise and is the case with most things, even outside of literature and the Arts – a lingering reminder of wide-scale colonization.
In some of these classes, we studied the work of one Sri Lankan diasporic writer, Michael Ondaatje. Being the only Sri Lankan in class, I was called on as a resource of sorts, to correct the pronunciation of names more than for my knowledge of the context and stories. It was refreshing to learn about familiar places and narratives that I could relate to on some level. However, despite the fact that the professor was qualified and knowledgeable, it still felt strange to be a bystander listening to an analysis of stories that were set in the not too distant past of my own country.
This prompted a conversation with a South Asian classmate who questioned why there were courses on American literature, English literature, even Chinese literature but there really wasn’t any from our part of the world, despite our massive collective populations and thousands of years worth of stories. I responded that someone who was interested would need to pursue a high level of education, formulate a course, and get hired as a professor for that course to exist. That’s when we realized how rare that occurrence would be.
The Arts aren’t a popular career path in my part of the world, to put it lightly. The fact that I was the only person in the room who had any personal rooting to the story, a story that didn’t fit in the Western Canon, made me feel more protective of these cultural narratives. If I don’t take ownership of these stories in the path that I’ve chosen, then who will?
Learning about new perspectives and cultural narratives from across the globe, opened my eyes to the narratives that originate in my corner of the world. It made me appreciate just how much a part of my own story it is. For me, this turned into a sense of responsibility. It’s not about patriotism or a sense of righteousness. It’s simply the case that no one will advocate for the stories of any group of people more than those who are connected to these stories themselves. When taken to extremes, this itself can lead to problems of wiping out other narratives for the convenience of your own, an issue we have seen happen countless times in history.
To me, this emphasizes our need to accept our stories and our histories for all that they are, not just the parts that are convenient to us or fit into our pre-existing notions. Understanding these narratives is how we learn from them, and make sure that our mistakes aren’t repeated.
Reading the stories of Michael Ondaatje while being so far away from home was a strange experience. He wrote from his own Sri Lankan multiethnic, diasporic point of view of his relationship to a motherland we both shared. He wrote about pre-Independence Ceylon in Running in the Family, Sri Lanka from a distance in The Cat’s Table, and a more recent Sri Lanka in the throes of a civil war in Anil’s Ghost. It opened my eyes to how complicated relationships to a nation can be – the idea that calling a place home wasn’t as superficial as language, passports, citizenship, or the amount of time you spend there. It made me view these complications in a way that wasn’t anti-nation or unpatriotic but came from a much deeper connection and emotion to a place that you may not always understand, but will always be home. A place you’ll always want to help along the journey to becoming better over time and learning from the past.