This study is about how people make sense of literature. More specifically, it explores how Eritrean literature in English is read by students at two institutions of teacher education, one in Norway and one in Eritrea. It is therefore a comparison of two interpretive communities. One underlying assumption is that culture, especially how national identity is constructed, maintained and challenged, influences the discoursal positions and interpretive strategies available to readers. The students‟ responses are analysed in the light of their national cultures and the social, educational and institutional contexts that they share. A second assumption is that each individual response cannot be completely accounted for by these factors. Readers, then, give meaning to texts, and texts achieve meaning first when they are read. But a text limits the coherent interpretations available to a reader. There are few qualitative comparative studies about how people make sense of literature, and this in itself is a rationale for this study. What comparative studies there are typically organise respondents by nationality, but refer only briefly to their culture and context. An important component of this study is therefore a methodological discussion of what a comparative study of nationally defined groups of readers entails. A further motivation is that there is currently virtually no research in the humanities in Eritrea.
The bulk of the material is provided by twelve Eritrean and ten Norwegian students of English, who wrote about three Eritrean literary texts: a fable, a short prose narrative and a play. They also answered a questionnaire about their experience and expectations of literature. To contextualise the literary texts I review the political and aesthetic space of literature in Eritrea, and provide an overview of Eritrean literature in English. Both groups of students reported finding fiction useful because it expanded their horizons and gave them an opportunity to learn about other cultures. Unlike the Norwegian students, most of the students in Eritrea looked to literature first and foremost with the expectation that it should contribute to upholding a moral society and their own moral integrity. The students in Eritrea were fairly consistent in being assertive in response to all three texts. Unlike the students in Norway, they were confident of having found the meaning of the texts they read, using strategies apparently developed through encounters with oral literature, the literature of which they had had most experience prior to their studies. The students in Norway were more likely to point out the individuality of their responses, with the possibility of there being other interpretations. The responses of the two groups were most similar in regard to a previously unfamiliar literary text about young people, where both were concerned with the importance of friendship and the innocence of childhood. They responded most differently to the nationalist play The Other War. The students in Eritrea consistently reproduced a national narrative template which was not available to the students in Norway, whose preferred interpretive strategy was to offer an understanding in terms of the characters‟ interaction, emotions and earlier experiences. This strategy, which they brought to all three texts, did not necessitate an understanding of social and political contexts, nor a moral standpoint. Student texts provided a rich material and they were well-suited to a research situation where transparency was an important consideration. A broader understanding of context than is found in most earlier studies of reading has proved conceptually valuable in accounting for the strategies and discoursal positions of the two interpretive communities.