Category Archives: Literature

Freedom of Expression and the Exiled Writer: A Reading List from Contemporary Literature Journal

To mark Banned Books Week, we are sharing a collection of articles and interviews from Contemporary Literature journal featuring writers whose work has been censored, or who have faced government persecution in response to their writing.


“I have tried to write honestly about China and preserve its real history. As a result, most of my work cannot be published in China.”

Ha Jin

Chinese writer Ha Jin came to the United States to complete doctoral studies in American literature and opted to emigrate permanently following the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989. From studying literature, he turned to writing poetry and then fiction, and to date he has published eight novels, seven books of poetry, and four short story collections.

In a New York Times op-ed, published a few days before the twentieth anniversary of Tiananmen Square, he explains his decision to write in English: “if I wrote in Chinese, my audience would be in China and I would therefore have to publish there and be at the mercy of its censorship. To preserve the integrity of my work, I had no choice but to write in English.” He continues, “To some Chinese, my choice of English is a kind of betrayal. But loyalty is a two-way street. I feel I have been betrayed by China, which has suppressed its people and made artistic freedom unavailable. I have tried to write honestly about China and preserve its real history. As a result, most of my work cannot be published in China.”

In this Contemporary Literature interview, conducted by Jerry A. Varsava, Ha Jin discusses growing up during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, when books were burned and schools were shuttered, as well as his decision to join the “great [English literary] tradition where nonnative writers [have become] essential writers.”

Read the interview, freely available for the rest of September: “An Interview with Ha Jin”


“If our own literature in Africa is too political, then I think the literature of the U.S. is too apolitical.”

Niyi Osundare

Niyi Osundare is a Nigerian poet known as “The People’s Poet” for his commitment to making poetry accessible to all and reflective of common life. He uses elements of the Yoruba oral tradition, which he transmits through his English-language writing.

In this 2000 interview with Cynthia Hogue and Nancy Easterlin for Contemporary Literature, Osundare describes the struggle of the artist writing under a dictatorship, summing up the situation with this parable: “once an English writer came to an African colleague and complained about the apparent irrelevance of Western writers. The African then told the Western artist, ‘Well, when we talk in Africa, the government listens, but that is not the end of the story. The government listens in a different way. They put us in jail.’”

But democracy also hampers the artist in certain ways, Osundare finds, having emigrated to the US in 1997. Comparing US literature and African literature, he notes, “Democracy leads to the flowering of free opinions, of public consciousness, and, without this, creativity cannot really take place. But democracy also leads to a kind of complacency which may undermine that dissonance and eliminate that kick in the stomach that is necessary for every creative activity. . . . If our own literature in Africa is too political, then I think the literature of the U.S. is too apolitical.”

Osundare believes in a “golden mean” that writers should strive for. And while Osundare’s work often has political themes, Isidore Diala argues in this Contemporary Literature article that the poet’s work contains a “vibrant and sustained global humanistic vision” that has been overlooked by critics who focus too narrowly on the poems’ Nigeria-specific social and political commentary.

Read the article, freely available for the rest of September: “Burden of the Visionary Artist: Niyi Osundare’s Poetry,” by Isidore Diala

And read the interview on JSTOR: “An Interview with Niyi Osundare”


“How might we think about postcolonial state formation and literary form together? Can we determine a relationship between them that goes beyond that of simple opposition?”

Jini Kim Watson on NINOTCHKA ROSCA

In 1973, Filipina writer Ninotchka Rosca was imprisoned under the Marcos dictatorship for her antigovernmental journalism. Later, from exile in the U.S., she wrote a short story collection, The Monsoon Collection, and a novel, State of War, about life during the Marcos regime. In the outlines of Rosca’s biography, argues Jini Kim Watson in her article “Stories of the State: Literary Form and Authoritarianism in Ninotchka Rosca’s State of War,” we find that the “repressive, unchecked (usually third-world) dictatorial state is conceived of in inherent opposition to the freedom and free speech of committed writers.” This vision of the relationship between the writer and the authoritarian state is seen, for example, in the literary and humanitarian organization PEN International, which fights for freedom of expression and strives to protect writers from state persecution.

While writers do face very real persecution, Watson argues that it is dangerous to oversimplify the dynamic between writers and the authoritarian state, since this could imply that third-world states are simply “tyrannical and backwards”—a judgment that privileges Western norms of “good” government and ignores the agency of individual citizens. “How might we think about postcolonial state formation and literary form together?” Watson asks. “Can we determine a relationship between them that goes beyond that of simple opposition?” Watson puts these questions to Rosca’s State of War, examining the ways the novel confounds a simplistic view of state tyranny through formal experimentation and a nuanced narrative.

Read the article, freely available for the rest of September: “Stories of the State: Literary Form and Authoritarianism in Ninotchka Rosca’s State of War,” by Jini Kim Watson


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Monatshefte Journal Welcomes New Editors

Monatshefte Vol. 111.2 cover

Monatshefte, a journal of German literature and culture, has added two new editors, Hannah V. Eldridge and Sonja E. Klocke. Both scholars are based at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, the home of Monatshefte since 1927. Eldridge and Klocke joined longtime editor Hans Adler to produce the most recent issue of the journal, and they will be taking over the reins when Adler steps down at the end of this fall. Monatshefte has been published continually since 1899, and this year, we are excited to celebrate Adler’s legacy (more on that in a forthcoming post!) and to learn about the new editors’ vision, as this foundational journal adapts to changes in the field of German Studies. Here, Eldridge and Klocke introduce themselves in their own words.


Hannah V. Eldridge: I have been at UW–Madison since 2012, first in the Department of German and now in the Department of German, Nordic, and Slavic, where I received tenure in 2018. My main research area is lyric poetry from the eighteenth century to the present, with a focus on sound, rhythm, and other parasemantic features. Other interests include literature and philosophy. I have published on Hölderlin, Rilke, Cavell, Wittgenstein, Klopstock, Nietzsche, and Grünbein, among others. As a participant in the group “Diversity, Decolonialization, and the German Curriculum,” I am working against my socialization in systems of inequality and to reflect the richness and variety of perspectives  in the German-speaking world in my teaching and research. I hope to bring this learning to bear on my work for Monatshefte as well. Some of my most significant educational and professional experiences have involved giving and receiving feedback, so I’m especially excited to work with authors on revising and rewriting.

Sonja E. Klocke: After holding my first faculty position at Knox College (IL, 2007–2012), I joined UW–Madison in 2012. I was granted tenure in the Department of German in 2016, and have since been part of the Department of German, Nordic, and Slavic. My research interests range from the eighteenth century to the present, with a specialization in twentieth- to twenty-first-century German culture and a focus on postwar and contemporary literature and film. I have published on the legacy of the socialist German Democratic Republic (GDR) and the Holocaust; women’s writing; East German literature and film; contemporary writing on modern exile, migration, and globalization; discourses on illness and the body; and gender theory. As an author, I am grateful for the valuable feedback I have received from colleagues in the past. As co-editor of Monatshefte, I hope to bring these experiences as well as the editing skills I have had the chance to develop to the journal.

On their vision for Monatshefte: Although we are excited to receive articles in our areas of research, Monatshefte will remain a general-interest journal, accepting submissions on all topics in any period of German-language literature and culture. We are looking forward to following in Hans Adler’s august footsteps, and we will be making a few updates to the journal in response to changes in the field. First, and most importantly, we will begin to expand the national and international review boards to include scholars whose intellectual agendas and individual perspectives are not currently represented there. We will also be making some changes to the types of information collected in “Personalia,” the annual report on German departments, faculty, graduate students, and dissertations. Finally, we hope to work with the wonderful University of Wisconsin Press to streamline submissions and editing, as well as to create blog entries and social media posts as a venue for more informal communication with our readers.

An Interview with Poet Rae Armantrout

As National Poetry Month draws to a close, we present three interviews with living poets, originally published in Contemporary Literature journal. The interviews are freely available to access until May 1.

Our final poet is Rae Armantrout, a central figure of the Language poetry movement of the 1970s and 1980s who was nevertheless somewhat separate from that collectivity, crafting her own flavor of poetry that over time has remained “distinctive and distinctively fresh, particularly in its allegiance to a honed version of lyric that brings to mind the poetry of Emily Dickinson or George Oppen, and in its attention to the degradations—and the surprises—of American speech that permeate our consciousness and infiltrate even our dreams,” according to interviewer Lynn Keller. The conversation presented here touches on everything from physics to religion to ghosts to feminism. Armantrout discusses her cancer diagnosis and how it has impacted the practice and content of her writing, leading her to write poems more quickly and to dwell on mortality (though she says, “I’ve always had an attraction to the dark stuff anyway. I used to say I was channeling Kali. (Not so funny now.)”). When Keller asks Armantrout about the religious imagery in her recent work, she replies that though she’s not religious, she sees a parallel between religious practice and the act of creating a poem or other artwork:

Who are we talking to when we write? I don’t really think, in my case, that I’m talking to a specific audience; I think I’m talking to myself, but when I’m talking to myself, who am I talking to? It feels very much like when I was a child and I prayed, so it’s not that I actually believe there is an entity called God who hears what I say, but there is this desire to somehow perfect utterance. But make it perfect for whom, you know? I think in a way we are making something for the gods that we don’t believe in.

Read the full interview here, and then go read Armantrout’s poems!


And check out our other poetry month offerings:

An interview with Marge Piercy

An interview with Myung Mi Kim

An Interview with Poet Myung Mi Kim

As National Poetry Month draws to a close, we’re presenting three interviews with living poets, originally published in Contemporary Literature journal. The interviews are freely available to access until May 1.

Our second poet is Myung Mi Kim, in conversation with Lynn Keller. Kim, a Korean-American, refers to herself as “as a poet arrived at an uncanny familiarity with another language—or more precisely, as a poet transcribing the interstices of the abbreviated, the oddly conjoined, the amalgamated—recognizing that language occurs under continual construction.” As Keller puts it, in Kim’s hands, language

is subject to fracture and disruption, excision and rearrangement. It functions not as a means of gaining an illusory stability but rather as a register of the often jarring instability of human experience in time, and of the stumblings, the incoherencies, the polyphonic complexity of the immigrant’s experience in and between several cultures.

The wide-ranging discussion presented here touches on the poet’s process, childbirth and family, documentary poetry, poetic forms that privilege visual impact, the pastoral, geological time, the slipperiness of nostalgia, the generative power of silence, migration, and loss and mourning. Kim and Keller’s conversation bounces among so many different topics in part because Kim’s vision of poetry is so expansive and all-encompassing. As she describes it, “Poetry invites a practice of language/perception that embraces mutability, undecidability, the motion underneath and around what’s codified in conventions of language, grammar, syntax, semantics, and so forth. Poetry produces new ways of participating in perception, thinking, historical being and becoming.”

Read the full interview here, and then go read Kim’s poems!


And if you missed yesterday’s post, check out an interview with poet Marge Piercy.

An Interview with Poet Marge Piercy

As National Poetry Month draws to a close, we will be presenting three interviews with living poets, originally published in Contemporary Literature journal. The interviews are freely available to access until May 1.

Our first offering features poet, novelist, and memoirist Marge Piercy. Interviewer Bonnie Lyons describes Piercy’s poetry in this way:

Valuing usefulness highly, Piercy writes poems that are accessible to ordinary readers without sacrificing rich imagery and subtle sound effects. Her poetry embodies her belief in the importance of attention in her precise word choice and acute perception. Tikkun olam, Hebrew for “healing the world,” is central to her poetry, which works to awaken her readers’ passionate recognition of all that could and should be changed through human effort.

To date, Marge Piercy has written nineteen volumes of poetry, seventeen novels, and a memoir. When asked how she navigates multiple genres, she characterizes herself as “a poet who also writes novels.” She describes the benefits of her chosen genre:

You can write poetry when you are dying. The Plains Indians would try to have a final utterance. You can write poetry in a prison cell—you can scrawl it on the walls. You can memorize your poems. You can carry them around with you. A novel is a far more artificial construction, and it takes huge amounts of time to write one. If you were fighting as a guerrilla, you couldn’t write a novel, but you could write poetry. A novel is far less portable.

Lyons and Piercy discuss the writer’s long history of social and political activism. Piercy articulates how she has created a balance between activism and writing—two fields of activity that are often felt to be in conflict with one another. Piercy explains,

When I was a full-time organizer, I basically gave up sleeping to write. In my life since then, because I have been able to reach people through my writing, I feel much less of a conflict. In fact, it’s all of a piece with me. I don’t divide things up that way. I don’t make a value judgment that one type of poetry is more important than another—neither my poems about Judaism, or poems about love, or poems about the war in Iraq or the environment.

The interview also touches on the usefulness of poetry, the importance of reading in order to write, poetry as an act of attention similar to a religious practice, making a living as a writer, Piercy’s reputation as an “anti-academic” poet and how poetry can thrive outside of academe, and writing about sex, aging, and the body.

Read the full interview here, and then go read Piercy’s poems!