Literature of Epidemics and Pandemics: Tackling Oppression





Karen L. Thornber (Department of Comparative Literature and Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations)
Freshman Seminar 64C    4 credits (fall term)     Enrollment:  Limited to 15

Wherever you live—whether in the United States, Asia, or anywhere in-between; whether in an isolated rural community, a booming megacity, or anywhere in-between—it is almost certain that your life has been affected if not transformed by Covid-19. This disease is not only a health crisis from which more than a million people will lose their lives. It has also triggered a financial crisis, having left millions and likely soon billions unemployed or underemployed. Just as significantly, COVID-19 has further exposed and exacerbated countless of the inequalities in our societies, injustices fueled by racism, sexism, classism, ableism, ageism, ethnocentrism/jingoism, heterosexism and similar and frequently intersecting forms of oppression in the United States and around the world. Already, creative narratives on the current pandemic—novels, plays, poems, short stories, essays, and memoirs—are exposing the many ways our societies are failing and have long failed our most vulnerable. These narratives are also providing guidance for a more equitable and sustainable future.

Putting our own experiences living through a pandemic into broader historical and cultural perspective, in this seminar we read a selection of acclaimed novels, short stories, drama, poetry, memoirs, and essays from around the world (Africa, Asia, the Americas, Europe) and from classical times to the present on a range of epidemics and pandemics. This literature on epidemics and pandemics has played a large role in documenting (and in some cases glossing over) historical injustices and inequalities on the one hand, and on the other, imagining and inspiring future transformations. We will be most concerned with what these narratives tell us about existing and longstanding forms of oppression, our frequent (in)capacities as individuals, communities, and societies to ameliorate much less eliminate injustice and inequality, and what vision these narratives can provide us as we continue to live through and one day emerge from Covid-19. Class discussion gives the necessary historical, cultural, and literary contexts for these primary texts. In-class presentations and final projects offer students opportunities to engage more deeply with their local communities.

Prerequisites: The only prerequisite for this seminar is a desire to read a range of thrilling, provocative works from around the world that tackle some of the most significant problems that have faced and continue to face societies. No non-English language expertise required, but students who can read a novel in the original language are encouraged to do so.

See also: Fall 2020