Reading world literature gives students the opportunity to critically engage with other cultures and really think about their own place in the world.

Raphael Dalleo

"If we are always going to be outsiders, can we really critically engage with another culture?" asks Professor Raphael Dalleo, English.

By introducing his students to a variety of international authors, Dalleo encourages them to examine how they interact with people from backgrounds other than their own. "Reading world literature gives them the opportunity to critically engage with other cultures and really think about their own place in the world," he says.

Dalleo's Introduction to World Literature course includes works by writers from such diverse locations as South Africa, Pakistan and the Caribbean. He also teaches a course devoted exclusively to the literature of the Caribbean, a region that holds special interest for him.

"Much of my research has focused on colonialism and its impact on Caribbean culture," Dalleo says. "The region is ideal for comparative study of the cultural effects of colonialism since so many imperial powers were involved there, including Spain, France, Holland, England, Denmark and the United States."

The U.S. occupation of Haiti in the early part of the 20th century was an especially telling time, he notes. The U.S. government insisted that the occupation stabilized Haiti, and vice presidential candidate Franklin Roosevelt even took credit for writing the Haitian constitution. Meanwhile, the occupation inspired such scathing critiques of the U.S. throughout the Caribbean that domestic support turned against the occupation and brought it to an end in 1934.

Political activism by Caribbean people was just one outcome of the occupation. Primitivism inspired by Caribbean culture came into style in the U.S., where it was embraced as both exotic and as an antidote to modernity. "The U.S. also became fascinated with the spiritual practices of Haiti," says Dalleo. "A travel book titled The Magic Island, published in 1929, exposed many people for the first time to what became known as Voodoo. Then the first zombie movies were created in the 1930s, inspired by this U.S. interpretation of Voodoo."

Be aware of your own preconceptions when interacting with another culture, Dalleo advises. "How do we approach something we don't know much about?" he asks. "My goal is not to provide students with a formula for cross-cultural encounters, but to encourage everyone to ask themselves this kind of question."

Posted Oct. 7, 2015