Crossing Borders and Shattering Boundaries at the Transregional Academy „Minor/Small Literature(s). Perspectives on World Literature from Elsewhere“

Matthew Greene, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Stepping through the large stone archway, the city—with its softly rumbling metro, a gentle breeze battling the midsummer heatwave, and the melodic murmur of Czech—faded away, ushering in a silence and stillness belying the bustling neighborhood of Olšany in eastern Prague.  Donning a kippah, I entered the labyrinth of tombs of Nový Židovský Hřbitov, the New Jewish Cemetery.  Less famous than its counterpart the Old Jewish Cemetery, the New Jewish Cemetery bears testament to the complex history of modern Prague, with gravestones inscribed in Hebrew and German for speakers of Yiddish and Czech, the walls of the cemetery home to solemn memorials in English erected by descendants from the United States, Australia, and beyond to those without a grave, robbed of life in World War II.  Walking deeper among the graves, I followed the signs to a simple marker bearing three names: Franz, Hermann, and Julie Kafka.

Two days prior, I journeyed from Berlin to Prague upon the conclusion of the Transregional Academy “Minor/Small Literature(s): Perspectives on World Literature from Elsewhere” at the Leibniz-Zentrum für Literatur- und Kulturforschung.  From July 11-20, nineteen participants—graduate students, post-doctoral researchers, and established instructors and professors—from around the world gathered in Berlin under the direction of six scholars to grapple with our own understandings of small/minor literature/s or kleine Literatur, a phrase coined by Franz Kafka in a diary entry from December 1911.  Through presentations, thematic discussions, lectures, and outings, the Transregional Academy created and provided a forum for the productive exchange of ideas and collaboration bursting with fruitful discussion to challenge the status quo of the major/minor divide and how we approach, engage with, and teach literature.

Separated into three working groups, each participant presented his or her work in an open format to the other members of the group.  Among the Academy’s many unique features, however, is that each participant submitted his or her project more than a month in advance of convening, allowing all members adequate time to read and familiarize themselves with the material.  Following the allotted half-hour for an individual’s presentation was an hour of discussion, a truly exceptional opportunity in comparison to other academic formats.  As an example of the breadth of subjects covered, my own group not only discussed my work in Czech literature written by ethnically Vietnamese authors, but also affinities between Palestine and Chiapas (Mexico), a Namibian Facebook novel being written in real-time, 12th century Arabic commentary on one of the most well-known Arabic texts, 19th century Malayalam verse, post-Soviet migration in modern German literature, and the minoritization of dominant languages in Ethiopia.  Though these topics may seem disparate, I found my own work transformed by the insights of my forum colleagues, due to which I have not only narrowed the focus of my argumentation, but also widened the breadth of materials at my disposal to craft a transregional, transnational, transcontinental, translingual approach to literature. 

As the Academy concluded, we the participants began to question the very nature of literature, its constitution, and the academic need for categorization.  With the global turn of societies, nations, and countries to adopt an inward gaze fueled by exclusionary policies and politics, our unique collaboration in Berlin—though small—in a non-competitive, friendly, supportive, and engaging atmosphere may indeed serve as an example for the ways in which we, the new generation of academics, can challenge the silos of academe, cross borders, and splinter norms.  What better way to honor the 30-year anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall and therewith the destruction of the ultimate Western symbol of division in the city itself just one block over from where the Wall once stood?

In the weeks after the Academy, I was fortunate to extend my time in Europe with the assistance of the Academy’s extraordinary staff to travel south to the Czech Republic to continue my research.  On a hot, hazy July morning, I crossed the threshold of the New Jewish Cemetery, leaving behind modern Prague to enter the world of silence of those who came before to visit the specter lurking in the shadows of this year’s Transregional Academy.  As I stood before the grave of Franz Kafka, a German-speaking Bohemian Jew fraught with concern over his disconnection from the many worlds he occupied, I smiled, indeed the very opposite reaction expected in a cemetery.  Here before me was the man who had set me on the path of comparative literature, who had—in a seemingly simple diary entry, a locus of personal reflection unintended for prying eyes—opened the door to contentious debates encircling the globe still underway more than a century later.  Thinking to the discussions had in Berlin, the new friends and colleagues made, and the important work lying ahead of us all, I remembered a letter written by Kafka to Oskar Pollack in 1904.  In his letter, Kafka wrote what has become one of his most well-known aphorisms, namely that “ein Buch muß die Axt sein für das gefrorene Meer in uns,” a book must be the ax for the frozen sea in us.  The Transregional Academy in Berlin on small/minor literature/s undeniably spoke to Kafka’s firm belief in literature’s unique ability to cross borders, destroy boundaries, and unsettle a reader, a society, a nation.  We must only grab hold of the ax and swing.

Matthew Greene is a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the Department of German, Nordic, and Slavic. His work investigates multilingualism and linguistic nationalism in the Czech lands, more specifically the power structures of language hierarchies and the ramifications thereof in society and culture. He unites literature, linguistics, and history to examine the ways in which governmental linguistic policies impact society, especially minority groups. In this vein, his work examines both the Jewish population of the Czech lands, particularly prior to World War II, as well as the growing Vietnamese population at present, arguing that these two groups are intrinsically interconnected in a process of racial and racialized Othering. He holds an MA in German Studies from UW-Madison, an MA in Comparative Literature from Dartmouth College, and a BA in European Studies from the University of Vermont.


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