The MHS World Cup of Literature

The wonderful Acqua Alta bookstore in Venice (photo source)

This year I’m teaching a new course at Year 10 called ‘World Literature’. I want to get the students reading a wide variety of literature from other countries and short stories and poems are an excellent way to achieve that. These days few enough people read at all, let alone read literature in translation or from a culture other than their own.

I like to think that I’m pretty well read, and I regularly read more than 100 books per year, but even I can tend to be a little insular in my reading. I looked over the 58 books I’ve read so far this year and came up with this breakdown by country of author (which admittedly is not always a straightforward thing to establish):

Australia: 13
USA: 11
UK: 11
Italy: 9
Canada: 4
NZ: 2
France: 2
Switzerland: 2
Argentina: 2
Ireland: 1
China: 1

16 of those books have been in translation. The large number of Italian books is explained by the fact that I travelled there earlier this year and like to read books from a place that I’m going to. But it’s a little disappointing to me to discover that the vast majority of my reading comes from just three countries.

There’s a fairly long tradition of universities offering courses in world literature or comparative literature, especially in the United States, but it’s less common in Australia and also rare in high schools, so I’m excited about this opportunity. I think it’s vitally important for students to encounter work from other countries and cultures in a world that seems to be getting more insular and narrow-minded by the day. It’s a way for them to avoid the danger of a single story:

Given the FIFA World Cup has just finished for this year, I thought it would be a great opportunity to tap into that and run a ‘tournament’ of sorts where the students would read stories from different countries and have them face off against each other, making judgements about which ones they prefer and explaining why. This idea is not an original one: Chad Post, publisher at Open Letter Books in the US, ran a World Cup of Literature in 2014 in the pages of his blog, Three Percent. That was with novels, though, and preserved the countries that were at the football version that year.

I’m doing it with short stories and they are not all countries that were represented at this year’s FIFA World Cup. Partly that’s due to the numbers. I have 19 students in my class and in the first round I want them to read two stories each, choosing one to advance to the second round, making 38 stories rather than the 32 participants in the football World Cup. It’s also a matter of the stories that I could source. I’ve taken them from the pages of World Literature Today and they’re all stories published there since 2010 (although some stories were originally written earlier than that).

38 stories is an awkward number to fit into a knockout tournament format, so I’m going to make it work like this:

First round: 
Each student randomly draws two stories, reads both and decides which one is better and why.

They will deliver their verdict as an oral presentation, 2–4 minutes in length, using these entries from the 2014 Three Percent tournament as a model:

World Cup of Literature 2014: Germany v Algeria

World Cup of Literature 2014: Japan v Italy

Second round:
This leaves 19 countries still in play. There will be three groups of three and five groups of two. Each student reads the other stories in their group and the group has to reach consensus on who goes through to the quarter finals.

Quarter finals:
With eight countries still remaining, the whole class will read each of those stories they haven’t yet read. The eight countries will be drawn against each other, and the entire class will vote for which country/story wins the four match-ups.

Semi finals:
The remaining four countries will be drawn against each other and the entire class will again vote in each of the two match-ups.

Just two stories will remain and we will choose the winner of the 2018 World Cup of Literature!

These are the participating nations and stories, with links to World Literature Today. They have a limit on how much you can read for free, but it’s cheap to get a digital membership and they’re worthy of support, so why not give them a boost if you’d like to read the stories?

Argentina: ‘A Perfect Wife’ — Angélica Gorodischer
Australia: ‘Measure Twice, Cut Once’ — Cate Kennedy
Austria: ‘Typhoid (an excerpt)’ — Klaus Hoffer
Bangladesh: ‘Beloved Rongomala (an excerpt)’ — Shaheen Akhtar
Belgium: ‘The Tenants’ — Anne Richter
Brazil: ‘The Green Ball’ — Lygia Fagundes Telles
Chile: ‘#Moving’ — María José Navia
Denmark: ‘Labrador’ — Daniel Dencik
Egypt: ‘Scenes from the Life of an Autocrat’ — Basma Abdel Aziz
Ethiopia: ‘It’s All the Same’ — Bewketu Seyoum
Finland: ‘The Catacombs’ — Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen
France: ‘The Cadillac’ — Sylvie Weil
Germany: ‘We Were the New Era’ — Andreas Baum
Greece: ‘The History of Grains’ — Gianni Skaragas
Greenland: ‘The Grouse Hunt’ — Iben Mondrup
Hungary: ‘Danube 1954’ — Zsuzsa Selyem
India: ‘The Tale of a Coward’ — Premendra Mitra
Iran: ‘The Shipwrecked’ — Moniru Ravanipour
Iraq: ‘Approaching Zainab’ — Luma Sarhan
Israel: ‘Made Flesh’ — Alit Karp
Italy: ‘Anyone Can Be Replaced (an excerpt)’ — Peppe Fiore
Kenya: ‘Secondhand Wife’ — Ken N. Kamoche
Lithuania: ‘The Blockage’ — Žydrūnas Drungilas
Malaysia: ‘Doppelgänger’ — Dipika Mukherjee
Mexico: ‘The Objects’ — Yuri Herrera
Montenegro: ‘Leaving’ — Slađana Kavarić
Morocco: ‘Prosopopoeia (an excerpt)’ — Farid Tali
New Zealand: ‘Home’ — Alison Wong
Norway: ‘Dreamwriter (Autobiography)’ — Gunnhild Øyehaug
Peru: ‘Cyber-proletarian’ — Claudia Salazar Jiménez
Phillipines: ‘Equations of State’ — Kristine Ong Muslim
Russia: ‘Annus Mirabilis (Anus Horribilis)’ — Aleksey Lukyanov
Singapore: ‘Eyes and Ears’ — O Thiam Chin
Slovenia: ‘Anton’ — Polona Glavan
South Africa: ‘The Prisoners of the Past’ — Deena Padayachee
Taiwan: ‘Birds’ — Wu Ming-yi
Ukraine: ‘The Demon of Hunger’ — Tania Malyarchuk
USA: ‘The Binding of Isaac’ — Stephen Mitchell

In my next post I’ll reveal the draw for the first round match-ups and as we go I’ll try to keep things updated with further posts. I’m very interested to see what my students make of these stories and most of the authors are new to me as well. I’ve read novels by Alison Wong from New Zealand and Cate Kennedy from Australia as well as Yuri Herrera from Mexico, but nothing by the others.

It’s a tournament format that pits stories against each other and comes up with an overall winner, but most of all it’s a voyage of discovery. The point is not the points that get awarded for each match-up but what we can learn about other ways of seeing the world.

World Literature Today (picture source)