Waïl S. Hassan


01 December 2023

Can a non-Eurocentric Comparative Literature be imagined? Historically and epistemologically, Comparative Literature began, and has largely remained, a subset of European studies. The very ideas of “comparison” and “literature” have a well-known nineteenth-century provenance, invested in nationalism, scientific positivism, and geopolitical rivalry manifested in nation- and empire-building projects. The Comparative Literature of old was all about Europe—and specifically, as Werner Friedrich memorably put it, “about one quarter of the NATO-nations.” Forays of the discipline into other parts of the world in recent decades have for the most part been undertaken from a firmly European base. Postcolonial studies put a new twist on this centrality by breaking up one side of Orientalism’s East-West dichotomy but has otherwise preserved the other pole as a necessary the point of reference, a nameable antagonist. As a critique of colonial representation, discourse, and epistemology, postcolonial studies—as its name signifies—could not do without the centrality of the West, in a form of a reverse Eurocentrism. To signify this paradoxical reversal while acknowledging its invaluable contribution, I have elsewhere described the postcolonial approach to comparative studies as the North-South paradigm, and called attention to the no less paradoxical admission of previously excluded literatures into the sphere of comparison at the cost of tying them to colonial history and metropolitan canons. A shift in perspective from Eurocentric paradigms, including the vertical North-South axis, to interregional, or cross-regional, South-South relationality can, in principle, bypass the centrality of (post)colonial relations to advance the project of decolonizing knowledge.

Waïl S. Hassan is a Professor of Comparative Literature and English and the Director of the Center for South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. A specialist in modern Arabic and Arab Diaspora literature and intellectual history, Hassan is the author of Tayeb Salih: Ideology and the Craft of Fiction (Syracuse 2003), Immigrant Narratives: Orientalism and Cultural Translation in Arab American and Arab British Literature (Oxford 2011), and Arab Brazil: Fictions of Tertiary Orientalism (Oxford, forthcoming February 2024). He is the Arabic-to-English translator of Abdelfattah Kilito’s Thou Shalt Not Speak My Language (Syracuse 2008) and the Portuguese-to-Arabic translator of Alberto Mussa’s Lughz al-qāf from (Egypt’s National Center for Translation, 2015). He has edited several books and special issues, including The Oxford Handbook of Arab Novelistic Traditions (Oxford 2017), Approaches to Teaching the Works of Naguib Mahfouz (MLA 2012, with Susan Muaddi Darraj), and Literatura e (i)migração no Brasil (Edições Makunaima, 2020, with Rogério Lima). Hassan is a past president of the American Comparative Literature Association.

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