For the love of SFU’s World Literature department — expand your horizons!

I hid in my comfort zone in my classes at SFU — until I took a chance on WL 101W and the universe of dystopian fiction

Illustration courtesy of Brianna Quan.

By: Lubaba Mahmud, Staff Writer

Disclaimer: This article is not sponsored by SFU’s World Literature department; it just portrays my giddy excitement for books and my love of reading!

I am an avid reader, but I had a tendency to stick to a few genres, such as contemporary and thrillers. To challenge myself and expand my horizons, I took WL 101W – Writing in World Literature during the spring 2019 semester. I considered the course a guide to the unknown — sort of like buddy-reading with my professor and classmates.

The offering of WL 101W that I took focused on “Dystopian Worlds,” which challenged our very notion of a normal society and the way we do things in everyday life. It was spooky, fun, and incredibly striking. I remember how some concepts gave me goosebumps, leading me to close the book in my hand and just absorb what I had read.

Our syllabus included the following books as required reading: The Emissary by Yôko Tawada, Barefoot Gen, Vol. 1: A Cartoon Story of Hiroshima by Keiji Nakazawa, Maus: A Survivor’s Tale (Maus I) by Art Spiegelman, We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Notice the diversity in the list of authors? That’s another reason I enjoyed the course.

I can sum-up my book reviews in one word: eye-opening. The Emissary is a whimsical short story filled with interesting wordplay, in which a post-apocalyptic Japan oppresses its citizens and controls discontentment through censoring language in various ways.

Barefoot Gen and Maus are graphic novels that illustrate the victims’ suffering during World War II, and the loss of innocence that comes with the harsh grip of violent reality. Maus’ name comes from the depiction of Jews as mice and Nazis as cats during the Holocaust.

On the other hand, Brave New World shows a society employing selective breeding of humans with the aim of improving their hereditary quality, which gives way to an intelligence-based social hierarchy. It foresees great scientific strides in the future so that a “utopian” society is established, only to be questioned by a “savage.” Similarly, the totalitarian regime in We is threatened when a rebel group questions the very definition of freedom. As an interesting tidbit, We was banned when it came out, which means I am officially a badass nerd now that I’ve added a once-banned book to my arsenal! 

It sounds rosy when I look back and reminisce, but I remember not understanding much of what was going on when I read the first book, The Emissary. That’s when our charming professor, Dr. Melek Ortabasi, came to our rescue to help us discover the meaning of the books’ metaphors and symbolism. Of the many things I noticed about Dr. Ortabasi, her enthusiasm and contagious love of literature stood out. Her discussion topics were thought-provoking, and I was in awe of other students’ perspectives as we sat around the round tables and let our colourful, yet slightly confused, minds run free. Although I went in with little knowledge about the books, I came out with small but powerful revelations about human society and a great admiration for authors.

My message, that I now pass on to anyone that will listen, is to not be afraid to experiment. The arts and humanities are your friend. SFU offers a multitude of interesting electives, so it would be a crime to always try to get into the popular ones, only to get stuck on the long waitlists anyway. Sometimes, it’s the experience in the class that matters more than the grade you receive. My majors (economics and international studies) require me to analyze and calculate phenomena of the real world, but this World Literature course brought a change of scenery for me: it introduced the cryptic and fascinating world of awe-inspiring authors. So, please, be brave and seek out new educational experiences!