Teaching world literature and decolonising the curriculum

By Christinna Hazzard and Filippo Menozzi

How does world literature contribute to the debate on decolonising the curriculum? World literature can put a new spin on the meaning of “decolonising” because of its dual critique of monolingualism and class blindness in contemporary academia. Indeed, world literature means linking the teaching of non-canonical works, including texts in translation, to an incessant critique of global unevenness, class privilege and economic exploitation. Accordingly, world literature can offer precious tools to resist the undervaluing of the humanities today. Without renouncing its oppositional vocation, it can make literary pedagogy inclusive, relevant and empowering.

The idea that literary studies, and the arts and humanities in general, are threatened by chronic underfunding and systematic undervaluing in our currently political and economic climate is by now well versed. World literature, as field of study and theoretical paradigm, has recently been brought into discussions around the validity and purpose of English studies in a world that is supposedly fully globalised and in an academic and political environment that, with its emphasis on profitability and value-for-money above all else, is increasingly hostile to the arts and humanities. In our view, a world literature rooted in cultural materialist theory offers a valuable and timely contribution to the current need and desire for global perspectives in literary and cultural studies, and has the potential to do so without compromising on the needed critique of our current political and social order, including the important task of decolonising the curriculum.

In this post we will focus on the challenges and possibilities of teaching world literature as part of an English studies programme. These reflections are based on our experience of teaching world literature at Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU). Our third-year ‘World Literature’ module aims to reframe the study of English by drawing on a concept of world literature developed by literary critics such as Franco Moretti, and the Warwick Research Collective. This particular concept of world literature should not be seen as a new canon: rather, world literature is a system, a way of embedding the study of literature in the complex economic realities of the twenty-first century. The questions we raise in the module can be aligned with the general aim of decolonising the curriculum, as we propose international authors from minority and non-privileged backgrounds. However, world literature can put a new spin on the debate and help reimagine what we mean when we talk about “decolonising” the study of literature.

Translation: avoidable or necessary?

In our experience, there is a deep suspicion within English studies around teaching texts in translation, underpinned by an assumption that something will always be lost in translation.  As multilingual academics, we, of course, appreciate the satisfaction of working with literature across several different languages. However, this is not always an option available to our primarily monolingual students. In fact, one of the problems with debates discouraging the use of literary texts in translation, is that they often fail to adequately account for the complex politics of language in spaces where majority languages are not spoken. Certainly, in the Nordic region, which is the focus of the research of one of us, translation is unavoidable in the production and circulation of literature because the national literary canons are, quite simply, smaller, and often spill over national borders. This blurring of national canonical boundaries is itself a reflection of the region’s colonial history, including, for instance, the fact that Danish was the official language of the Faroe Islands until 1948 and Greenland until 2009. In both countries the revival of national languages was central to national independence movements, which necessarily involved translating foreign works of literature into Faroese and Greenlandic.

It is, then, a reflection of continued cultural hegemony of English, which is itself, of course, the result first of British and now American imperialism, that translated texts play such a small part in our literary culture. When teaching world literature to our students at LJMU, we found that exposing students to texts in translation invited them to reflect on the parameters of their subject by encouraging debate about what is included and excluded in the broad category of English Literature, and that discussions about the importance of decolonising the curriculum followed. If we want a curriculum that is truly decolonised and global in scope, reading in translation is therefore necessary, but we need to teach students how to approach translated texts, for they often lack the confidence to read and write about texts that deal with non-Anglophone cultures.

Decolonisation: ideology or critique?

Teaching translated works is a most productive and valuable starting point for linking world literature to the politics of decolonising the curriculum. It shows that ideas and narratives expressed in other languages can be highly translatable and relevant to students in the UK. Furthermore, our experience of teaching non-canonical texts, including works in translation, in a non-Russell Group, ex-polytechnic university can suggest many issues that headlines about decolonising English at Oxbridge have so far dramatically overshadowed. Indeed, the momentum of decolonising the curriculum should not be exhausted by the agenda of cultural diversity. Rather, it should challenge systemic inequality, shifting the focus from the individual and singular towards a more sustained engagement with the structural and the social. In contrast to other ways of studying English, world literature emphasises how texts are entangled in a global supply chain that enables the circulation of capital and commodities. It reveals the dark backstage of oppression of workers, communities and environments that makes our consumer economy possible. Against facile celebrations of multicultural tolerance or success stories of elite migrants, world literature involves an unrelenting focus on the exploitation, injustice and unevenness at the heart of our globalising world. Most centrally, teaching world literature in an ex-polytechnic can illuminate how the question of social class cannot be overlooked in attempts at contesting privilege and hierarchy. Thus, our current syllabus includes a study of NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! (2008). In our module, we propose this text within a wider reflection on Liverpool and its place in a global shipping industry, linking it to pressing concerns about slavery and finance capital. In a ‘World Literature’ module, teaching about the legacy of the 1781 Zong massacre can be a way of discussing the politics of representation in relation to the commodification of human bodies and the exploitation of workers. It is also a way to remap the North-West of England in the wider frame of global capitalism and to find resonances across generations of workers from around the globe.

Teaching world literature to students from diverse and non-privileged backgrounds has taught us to make our curriculum relevant and empowering, mirroring the civic mission and the values of equality and inclusivity of our institution. In much the same way in which the fight for gender equality needs to contest the rise of neoliberal, corporate feminisms, so world literature needs to expand our consciousness about privilege. In an era of student debt, anxieties about job security and the growth of an academic precariat, world literature is the best way to reintroduce questions about cultural production, institutional critique, and social unevenness.

World literature can give the idea of “decolonising the curriculum” a new, revitalising tone: instead of mere politics of recognition and admittance, entry into the mainstream or diversification, decolonising should equal an incessant work of critique and the unlearning of academic race and class privilege. Decolonising should involve putting economic inequality and class domination back into the agenda. In an era of planned undermining of the humanities, world literature prepares us for strategies of resistance and opposition that are urgently needed to protect the future of our discipline and of our communities.

[Christinna Hazzard is sessional lecturer in the Humanities at Liverpool John Moores University. She has recently had a chapter on “Nordic Noir and the Postcolonial North” published in Noir in the North (2020) and is preparing a monograph proposal for her doctoral thesis titled Semi-Periphery Realism: Nation and Form on the Borders of Europe.]

[Filippo Menozzi is lecturer in world literature at Liverpool John Moores University, where he is also director of the MA English Literature. He is the author of Postcolonial Custodianship (2014) and World Literature, Non-Synchronism, and the Politics of Time (2020), and editor of a special issue of New Formations on Rosa Luxemburg.]

Britain and Haiti in the nineteenth century: Decolonising imperialism

By Jack Webb

In 1822, James Butterworth, a topographer, published an account of his visit to the Trinity Church in the sleepy, but industrialising town of Salford. He was struck by the respectability and cleanliness of the place, a credit to the townspeople who kept it. Inside the building, there was a handsome organ, the arms of England and, beyond that, a white marble arch which bore an inscription. It read:

Sacred to the Memory of

Thomas Drinkwater,

Major of his Majesty’s 62d REGT of foot

Who perished at sea

On his return from the West Indies

Thrice had his foot Domingo’s island prest [sic],

Midst horrid wars and fierce barbarian wiles;

Thrice had his blood repelled the yellow pest that stalks,

Gigantic through the Western Isles,

Returning to his native shores again,

In hopes tembrace [sic] a father — brother — friends

Alas! The faithless ratlin [sic] snaps in twain

He falls — and to a watery grave, descends.

(Butterworth 1822, pp. 95–96)

In this quiet English town, in a building that was at the heart of public and spiritual life, lay a monument to a history otherwise largely forgotten; a history of Anglo–Haitian relations. Such a history blows wide open any notion that Britain’s nineteenth century was one of imperial might and expanding control over vast swathes of the world. Instead, from the perspective of Haiti’s Black sovereignty, we gather a decolonised vision of the British Empire, one in which we see the fragility and even failure of White colonial projects.

A dedication to Thomas Drinkwater, Trinity Church, Salford

The testimony in Trinity Church told its viewers of the British invasion of Haiti, during the country’s revolution and wars of independence (1791–1804). The enslaved in that territory had risen up against the French colonists and enslavers, initially to fight against the conditions of enslavement, and then to overthrow the system itself. As the revolution grew, the French lost control of the territory. Spain and Britain attempted to invade and annex what had been the most profitable regime of plantation enslavement on the planet. Here is where Drinkwater, and the inscription, become relevant. Like so many of his compatriots, 14,000 to be precise, or one third of the British forces, the Major’s life was lost in this failed project of invasion and re-enslavement. The self-emancipated in Haiti, under the banner of Toussaint Louverture, would go on to defeat the British, the Spanish and also Napoleon’s elite army that he assembled to take back the colony. In 1804, Jean Jacques Dessalines, now leader of the Haitian Revolution, declared independence, creating the world’s first Black sovereign nation–state.

The story of Haiti and Britain does not, though, end here. Far from it. In the nineteenth century, Britain would become the most aggressive colonising force in the world; a project premised on ideas about British exceptionalism, racial supremacy and the need to colonise in order to civilise those ‘barbaric’, to use the terms of Drinkwater’s inscription, peoples of the world. Haiti’s own trajectory would be one of maintaining its fragile status as a Black, independent and sovereign nation in a hostile, ever-more imperialist world. It would seem, then, that Haiti and Britain would enter a relation of opposition and conflict in which the might of the British Empire came up against Haitian resistance. Such power imbalances were surely crucial to interactions between subjects of the two countries. But there was also a more dynamic set of relations in which Haitians intervened in the British imperial project, as much as British imperialists threatened Haitian sovereignty.

If we fast-forward nearly 100 years after the Haitian Revolution, and Drinkwater’s untimely demise, we see British travellers and Haitian political figures, and the broader population, entering discourse over the meaning of the Revolution, and of Haiti’s Black sovereignty. These deliberations did not only have existential implications for Haiti, but also for a British Empire that had recently colonised vast swathes of the African continent. If Haiti was to illustrate that people of African descent could, so the logic ran, ‘progress’, form a nation state, and even achieve ‘civilisation’, then there was less of a need for British intervention. When Hesketh Vernon Prichard visited Haiti in 1900 and wrote up his account as a travel narrative, and as a series of articles in the newly formed popular press, the Daily Express, he was at pains to emphasise how this nation, and its state, had got it all wrong. Chief amongst Prichard’s complaints was the Haitian adoration for its revolutionary hero, Jean Jacques Dessalines, rather than that other, supposedly exceptional, figure of Louverture:

In Toussaint [Louverture], you have a man whose bond, whose acts of mercy are the sole bright episodes against one of the darkest backgrounds of history… The many tales of his acts of generosity, no one of which militated in any degree against the cause of Haytian liberty, are legion.

Over and against him stands a far different figure, that of General Dessalines, who spared no man in his anger and no woman in his lust, who was corrupt and venal to an unheard of degree … Today, in Hayti, which of these two men is the national hero? It is Dessalines.

And the act upon which his fame chiefly rests is the barbarous decree issued by him for the massacre of every living French soul, man, woman and child.

(Prichard 1900, pp. 279–80)

Although the accusation does not hold true, Dessalines was, for British commentators throughout the nineteenth century, the ‘corrupt’ and ‘venal’ leader who massacred all foreigners in Haiti during the Revolution. The fact that Haitians extolled his memory demonstrated to people like Prichard their complete lack of capacity for any sort of proper government. In turn, this played into imperial fantasies about people of African descent beseeching domination, and British leadership. On the face of it, then, it would seem that Haiti’s attempt to construct a nation–state was undermined as it was instrumentalised in the British imperial project.

An example of a placard put up around urban areas in Haiti, 1904

However, Haitians did not only defend their right to sovereignty, but in continuing to celebrate Dessalines, they threatened some of the founding myths of the British Empire. Haitian President Nord Alexis, Prichard’s contemporary, evoked the national hero when he rallied Haitians to the cause of a united Haitian patriotism. In a speech printed in the national paper Le Nouvelliste, he declared, ‘let us remember that we are one people and that we represent one race. We must not fail at this dual task that Dessalines assigned to us: to be a people and to represent a race’. This hero of the Revolution was instrumentalised by observers like Prichard to argue for the pressing need for the British to rule over people of African descent; but he was also deployed by Haitian political elites to augment Haitian national unity and patriotic duty. In this latter case, Dessalines continued to haunt the British imperial project as he was seen to emphasise the vulnerability of the British interventions in the Caribbean, and the fallibility of imperial and racial justifications for colonisation.

A decolonised historical method can take many forms, but at heart it is concerned with recovering the experiences, thoughts and ideas of those maligned in imperial accounts and occluded from the colonialist historical record. It is concerned, as a matter of justice, with recognising the intellectual wealth and historical contribution of global majorities to local, national and world pasts. Such a method also improves exponentially any historical understanding of the given subject as it pays critical attention to the complexities of a multitude of viewpoints rather than dwelling only on the writings of imperial agents. British history, for instance, seen from the viewpoint of Haitians and many other people across the Caribbean and African contexts, becomes not only a story of oppression and violence, but also of fragility. Haitians resisted the cultures of imperialism and, much more than this, helped to shape its cultural, political and diplomatic trajectories.


Butterworth, James. (1822) Antiquities of the Town and a Complete History of the Trade of Manchester. Manchester: CW Leake.

Prichard, Hesketh Vernon. (1900) Where Black Rules White: A Journey Across and About Hayti. Westminster: Archibald Constable.

[Jack Webb is Research Associate in Postcolonial Print Cultures in the School of English, Newcastle University. His monograph, Haiti in the British Imagination: Imperial Worlds, 1847–1915 was published with Liverpool University Press in November 2020. In August, he will take up a lectureship in Modern British History at the University of Manchester.]