I’m a sucker for a short story and often think fondly of the ones I taught to the last couple of GCSE classes I worked with. Opening Worlds was a small anthology published by Heinemann for OCR, the examining board we were using. The good news is that it’s still available from Amazon.
The idea was to offer students literature from different cultures to conform with syllabus (“specification”) requirements. Of course that was a good thing but I was amused (and still am) that only a few years before we’d been firmly told that English Literature means just that and that writing translated from other languages would not do. Several of the stories in Opening Worlds are translations. The arguments continued and still do. As Education Secretary (2010 to 2014) Michael Gove saw off, or tried to, time-honoured texts such as To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men on the grounds that they are American, not English, literature.
Anyway, I’ve just reread Opening Worlds’s twelve stories – with delight. There are some famous names therein: Chinua Achabe, Amy Tan and Anita Desai for example. Alongside them are writers such as Ismith Khan and Khamsing Srinawk whose work I have never encountered in any other context.
There’s an African wedding, a bullied child with a talent for cricket in India, persecution in Maoist China and poverty in Thailand among many other heart rending, sardonic and/or ironic stories which often involve clashing cultures and misunderstandings.
My favourite story is “The Winter Oak” by Yuri Nagibin in which a young Russian school teacher berates her pupil, Savushkin for lateness. Later, she walks home with him through the forest in order to talk to his mother about his time keeping. On the way she discovers, as the child shows her all the natural wonders which routinely slow his walk to school, that he is far better educated than she is. It’s a story which used to lead to good discussions in my classrooms about the purpose of education and how you define it.
It was also a poignant joy to revisit “Leela’s Friend” by RK Narayan. The servant Sidda, adored by the young daughter of the house, is dismissed for theft by the wealthy Indians who employ him. When it transpires that he’s innocent he’s simply dubbed criminal anyway. It’s beautifully told – as Sidda, who is illiterate, entertains the child Leela with imaginative stories about the moon. The final paragraph is devastating.
Feng Ji-cai’s “The Tall Woman and Her Short Husband” punches you in the gut too. It’s effectively a case study about how people’s lives can be ruined by malicious, nosey, self-interested gossip especially during China’s Cultural Revolution. The titular couple seem an unlikely pair but they’re happy and love each other. That is too much for some people in their collective and gradually the couple are destroyed although, in a sense, their decency and devotion triumphs.
Please don’t be put off by the fact that this is a school anthology. Every single one of these stories is, in its way, a gem and they certainly weren’t written for children or “young adults”. As a collection it does what is says on the tin too. I guarantee you’ll learn a lot about other cultures and issues.
Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively