JNT 52.3 Featured Author: Yanli He

JNT 52.3 Featured Author: Yanli He

The Road to Socialist World Literature

I am very grateful to many friends and scholars who have helped me shape the idea of Socialist World Literature. The central concern of Socialist World Literature is remapping the connection between Socialist Realism and World Literature; and this concern is nurtured by my research interests in Minority Literature, Small Nation Literature, and the Cold War. I was born in Ya’an (also the hometown of the Giant Panda) and grew up around Tibetan and Yi minorities. My great grandfather graduated in 1947 from the History Department at Sichuan University and taught me the importance of education. However, I found very few minority children at school. Back then, I could not understand why they had not jumped at the chance to be educated and hence, to change their life trajectories. The only way these children could become educated was through the oral tales of their elders. As a Han child, I was fond of those tales but puzzled as to why I couldn’t find texts of them. Through running track (800 meters and 1500 meters) and creative writing, I found my way on to college, where I continued to write over 500,000 words in novels and won 14 literary awards.

I obtained a Bachelor’s in Chinese Language and Literature, and a Master’s in Philosophy (Film Aesthetics), which served to sharpen my interest in minority literature and aesthetics. Yet, in all that time, I never questioned what literature is or who defines it, or what aesthetics is, and who sets the standard, until I read Henry Louis Gates Jr. Gates’s Talking Book trope paved the way for my understanding of the broad spectrum of African American literary theory. I realized that Gates’s three step strategy, i.e., editing African American texts, explaining the origin and history of African American theory, and selecting the African American canon, has the capacity to help world minorities to fight for their cultural rights. Since then, my research interest has expanded in two directions. The first is the history of the colonizing of indigenous people in America and Australia, and the female minorities’ life struggles worldwide. The second is the problem of African American and African identity in films. After graduating, I led several projects locating African American studies within the Cold War context while holding a full-time administrative job as the director of international affairs.

The Cold War got my attention during my visit to Kent State University in 2015. I was shocked to learn about the KSU shootings of 1970. I wanted to know about cultural competition during the Cold War, how the West represented the East, how the East rewrote itself, and what kind of intersections existed between African Americans and the East. I found out that since the Scottsboro Boys Case, the Soviet Union and China maintained close relationships with African American leaders and communities to help them fight against segregation and racism, such as supporting them in building the Black Belt Republic. Furthermore, for many African Americans, “the voice of the Red world” was “their voice too” (Langston Hughes), so they created “the Republic of Letters,” and rose “up from bondage” (Dale Peterson), and traveled to Africa, China, and USSR. W.E.B. Du Bois’ observation that “It is one thing for a race to produce artistic material, it is quite another thing for it to produce the ability to interpret and criticize this material,” built a platform for me to understand that culture and history have two essential components: production and interpretation. However, the cultural hegemony of dominant races and nations always squashes the dominated ones’ ability to produce, let alone critique, because “they cannot represent themselves, they must be represented” (Karl Marx), or simply because “they don’t have history” (G. F. Hegel). So, what if they could not only represent, but also interpret? Could the culture and history of some minorities and dominated nations be rewritten?

After I fulfilled my administrative duty, I went to Stanford and Harvard as a visiting scholar. To identify Western stereotypes against the East, I narrowed my focus down to Socialist Realism, and I found Boris Groys’ strategy for reconceptualizing Soviet art to be like Gates’s. I finished my postdoctoral thesis (Boris Groys’ Art and Literary Theory, in Chinese, Sichuan University Press, 2022) in CREEES at Stanford—the last chapter comparing how Groys rewrites his nations’ art through Socialist Realism, and Gates re-narrates his race’s literature through the Talking Book (Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s African American Literary Theory, in Chinese, Sichuan University Press, 2023). At Harvard, Wole Soyinka and Skip Gates kindly gave me information about Alex La Guma, Ousmane Sembene, African Socialist Realism, and African American Social Realism. My conclusion was to combine them, especially Socialist Realism beyond the Soviet Union, so that I could locate a World Socialist Literature. Then, Daniel W. Pratt’s 2019 ACLA panel “Socialism and World Literature” gave me a chance to express my central concern of rethinking Socialist Realism and World Literature. Here I met Nataša Kovačević, who patiently supported the idea of Socialist Realism and World Literature. Then, Christine Neufeld, Rami Mahmoud, and the editorial team helped make publications possible; the result was the JNT Special Issue on Socialist World Literature.

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