AHRB logo: click link to AHRB homepage

Centre logo: click link to Centre homepage


UCL logo: click link to UCL homepage





Welcome to the AHRB Centre for
Asian and African Literatures

Welcome | Institutional Context | Research Context | Research Agenda | Publications | Teaching |Collaborations | Contact the Centre |




A new and distinctive initiative in the field of comparative literature and literary theory—

Started in October 2000, the Centre aims to become a world-class locus for comparative research on the literatures of Asia and Africa. As a joint SOAS/UCL project, the Centre is ideally positioned to achieve this goal. SOAS has one of the largest groups of specialists on the literatures of Asia and Africa in the world, with about forty staff and more than sixty research students. Literature specialists at UCL, which includes coverage of Western and Eastern Europe, the Americas, and the Slavonic world, complement the strengths of SOAS.

The Centre is distinctive in having a structure which demands both interaction between scholars of Asia and Africa who are trained in the original languages with those studying Western literature, and interaction among the specialists of the many literatures of Asia and Africa. The Centre will also draw together an even broader range of people through its seminar and public lecture series.

Institutional Context

bringing together scholars from around the world—

Literature is a discipline in its own right, like History or Anthropology, but it differs from them in that its various regional specialists tend to work in language-based units. The relative isolation from other 'literature' specialists means that it is difficult to cooperate in addressing research questions of a theoretical or methodological nature to examine non-western literatures as a group. Without an overarching institutional framework, interaction between specialists on different national literatures is haphazard and rare, and as a consequence general questions of methodology and theory are not often addressed across regions.

The Centre addresses this institutional problem by bringing together individuals from different departments and universities to foster innovative research on general questions of theory and methodology for the study of Asian and African literatures. A crucial function of the Centre is to integrate UK-based scholars into the Centre's projects. The Centre also has an important role in bringing scholars from Asian and African institutions to London to participate in the projects.

The core participants in the Centre's work will come together from diverse universities across Britain to develop their research through workshops attached to specific research projects. An important aspect of the Centre's work is to involve other interested scholars in discussion through its seminar series.

Link to an index of the Centre's specific research projects

Link to the latest newsletter, October-December 2003

Research Context

between individual traditions and comparative perspectives—

Innovation in literary theory and methodology has flourished in recent decades. Some of these developments, such as post-colonial approaches, have come from responses to literatures outside Europe and North America, but the fundamental critical innovations have emerged from Western literary culture. While many scholars may harbour doubts as to the suitability of applying Western theoretical approaches to the literatures of Asia and Africa, in practice the seemingly 'cosmopolitan' or 'universal' Western literary theories have come to dominate literary discourse on the literatures of Asia and Africa. This is true in Asian and African institutions, as well as in Western universities.

On the other hand, many researchers approach Asian and African literatures exclusively from within the individual traditions. One consequence of this has been that individuals have tended to work in isolation from other specialists who conduct research on different parts of Asia and Africa. The aim in such approaches has been to seek to understand the 'essence' of exotic literatures on their own terms. Although such work is essential to the development of the field, it has tended not to be comparative or to engage with the broader currents of theories and approaches to literature.

The Centre is committed to exploring and negotiating the epistemological difficulties of valuing both perspectives which ignore the West and comparative approaches which deploy theories across cultures.

Research Agenda

promoting creativity in critical theory by bringing Asian and African literatures into the centre of theoretical discussion—

The Centre facilitates research which questions the assumptions of western-derived theories from the perspective of Asian and African literary experience. By this process, the Centre will advance our knowledge of Asian and African literatures, challenge current Western theories of literature, and thus expand our knowledge of both the 'universal' and the 'particular' nature of literary analysis.

The eight questions below define the Centre's intellectual programme. Each question can be read as a first point of inquiry. They are therefore not listed in an order of priority, but are set out as fundamental concerns for the study of literature across cultures. The questions are the direct impetus for the CentreŐs research projects as well as the seminar and public lecture series. They also define the overall scope of the Centre's publication series, individual volumes of which will be grounded in the more specific questions posed by the particular research projects. In continually reviewing how the various research projects address these eight broad questions, the Centre aims to discover and develop new approaches and methods for research on literature. It is expected that the results of the research projects, through their distinctive four-workshop format, will refine the questions and raise new ones that move forward debates in the field of comparative literary studies.

The Questions:

  1. How do we determine meaning and significance in literary experience?
  2. Are there universal elements in the production, appreciation, and transmission of literature?
  3. How different is the experience of literature for those belonging to the artistŐs culture and for those from a different country or language?
  4. How is the experience of oral or performed literature different from the reading of a text alone and silently?
  5. What is the nature of the interaction, including the role of translation, between literatures belonging to different cultures and languages?
  6. How do the roles and conventions of literature alter over time and in changing contexts, and how is this reflected in discourses about literature?
  7. What are the strengths and limitations of Western theories and methodologies when they are deployed in the analysis and interpretation of Asian and African literatures?
  8. In what ways have and do non-Western literatures and literary theories contribute to and modify Western literary theory and practice?


Link to information about the Centre's Publications

Link to the SOAS Literary Review
(established and run by SOAS PhD Students)


The Centre is committed to instituting new approaches to PhD Research training in the field of Asian and African literatures and to expanding the Masters programmes in comparative literature offered by SOAS and UCL.

Applications for our first round of PhD/MPhil Fieldwork Funding are now CLOSED. The awards were announced in early December and can be used after 1 January 2002.

Link to information about PhD Research Training.

Link to information about Masters Programmes.

Contact the Centre

Prof Drew Gerstle
University of London
Russell Square

Email: ag4@soas.ac.uk

Phone: +44 (0)20 7898 4207
Fax: +44 (0)20 7898 4239


Last modified: 16 January 2006