Course Spotlight: Postcolonial Bildungsroman

Course Description

How does one grow up to find happiness? The bildungsroman, or plot of “coming to age,”  is a genre of the Western novel that arose in the late 18th century to answer precisely that question by using stories of young protagonists’ development to examine what leads to happiness.  In this class, students will become familiar with early influential models of the bildungsroman, then look to non-Western narratives of youth as a possible source of different cultural conceptions of the connection between youth and happy living. The course will proceed in two steps: First, students will analyze works of fiction considered seminal of the Western bildungsroman, by authors from the Anglo-American tradition (Germany, Britain, and the United States), to grasp the meanings and expectations that Western culture has attached to youth as a formative period of an individual’s life.  With this in mind, students will turn to narratives of youth from the postcolonial world, mainly from Africa, by writers from Egypt, Nigeria, Sudan, Senegal, Zimbabwe, Guinea, and South Africa.  These works will tentatively be called “postcolonial bildungsromane” (plural, German).  The class will examine the artistic choices in postcolonial bildungsromane and reflect on whatever might be notable, individually or jointly, as a significant similarity or difference to the Western model.  In short, students will be engaging in a cross-cultural exploration of the connection between youth and happiness, and the variety of ways in which literature negotiates aesthetically between often conflicting values like freedom (of choice) and responsibility, or potentially contradictory ideals like adventurousness and practicality. Cultural interpretation and reinterpretations of youth will lead students to evaluate conceptions of the happy life, good citizenship, and participatory membership in a democratic society. Along the way, if less directly, students will periodically turn to broader questions, like:

  • What is the value of reading into the stories told around us (and in this case, about us)?  
  • What is the value in thinking of ourselves and our culture in comparison to others or another?  
  • And because some books will suggest that there’s indeed risk in too much thinking, students will hopefully ask whether a course like this will make well-formed individuals, or risks the reverse.

Students who have a special interest in African literature will have some tools to reflect on why Western readers might bring to African fiction expectations, or preferences, for stories with “hope.”(No prerequisites needed. Texts originally written in French and Arabic will be read in English translations.)

Course Objectives

  • An understanding of the history and form of the Bildungsroman as a major genre of world literature
  • The capacity to identify and think critically about the logic of cultural for and how they mediates concepts, in this case: of Youth, Individuality, Happiness, Well-Roundedness, Freedom, Choice, Responsibility, Dialogue, Deliberation, Democracy
  • Introduction to World Literature
  • Introduction to comparison as analytical method

Sample Readings

Literature like: J. W. Goethe, Wilhelm Meister (Germany 1795-96); Olive Schreiner, Story of an African Farm (1883); Tawfiq al-Hakim, Bird of the East (1933); Hahya Haqqi, The Saint’s Lamp (1944); Chinua Achebe, No Longer at Ease (1960); Cheikh Hamidou Kane, Ambiguous Adventure (1961); Ousmane Sembène, “La Noire de…”; Tayyeb Saleh, Season of Migration to the North (1973); Tsitsi Damgarembga, Nervous Conditions (1988).

Films likeDjamila, the Algerian (Naguib Mahfouz and Yusuf Shahin, 1958); Black Girl, (Ousmane Sembène, 1966); Waiting for Happiness [“Heremakono”] (Abderrahmane Sissako, 2002); Early in the Morning (Gahité Fofana, 2006)

Enrollment Details

English 245: Topics in Contemporary Literature (Growing Up Global: Youth, Happiness, and the Postcolonial Bildungsroman)
3 credits
T/TH 1:00-2:15pm, Humanities 2637
Spring 2015

About the instructor

Nirvana Tanoukhi is an assistant professor in English, affiliated with African Languages and Literature and Middle Eastern Studies. Tanoukhi teaches courses on 19th and 20th century British and postcolonial literature, literary theory, and the global Anglophone novel, often from a comparative perspective.