Episode 42: Non-Western Literature & the Hero’s Journey

On May 11th Kasie and Rex welcomed Uchechi Kalu into the studio to talk global authorpreneurship and the non-western take on the Hero’s Journey. Here are the show notes:


Dr. Kasie Whitener, Clemson Road Creative, fiction writer

Rex Hurst, English Instructor, fiction writer

Uchechi Kalu, poet, nonfiction author, and entrepreneur

Theme for the day

The Hero’s Journey in Non-Western Literature


  • Review of the Hero’s Journey
  • Get to know Uchechi
  • Talk non-western literature
ball shaped blur close up focus
Photo by Porapak Apichodilok on Pexels.com

Segment 1

This is our fifth episode on the Hero’s Journey so ICYMI here are the other three episodes (one and two and three and four) and here’s the outline of the Hero’s Journey:

  • The Call — being chosen to undertake the journey
  • The Companions — who will accompany the hero?
  • The journey itself — distance, obstacles, treacheryMonsters
    • Temptations
    • Deadly opposites or opposing dangers — think colliding armies
    • The underworld — death itself or a glimpse of the other side in the form of visions and insights gleaned by ghosts and spirits
    • The helpers — maintain posts along the path and assist the hero and companions in some way
  • Arrival and frustration — within sight of the goal but a new and terrible series of obstacles presents
  • The final ordeal — the last test of the hero’s personal transformation
  • Achievement of the goal — life affirming, it was all worth it finale of the story.

So we’ve done the hero’s journey as it matches the writer’s own journey, we’ve done the hero’s journey primary characters the Mentor and the Goddess and the Companions; and then we did the Hero’s Journey the Call and the Herald. This week we’re taking on a question inspired by our Biblical origins conversation last week:

Is The Hero’s Journey a western trope?

Segment 2

Let’s get to know our guest. Uchechi Kalu is a poet, author, speaker, and global citizen with connections from the Middle East to Africa to Asia. Her family is from Nigeria, but she was born and raised in South Carolina, attended Princeton University, and recently lived in China for four years.

  • She studied Creative Writing at the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and received the Presidential Scholar in the Arts award by former pres Barack Obama.
  • She recently presented to Columbia’s 1 Million Cups entrepreneurial community her authorpreneurship in non-fiction: You founded Outlier Admissions and wrote a book about how to think like an admissions officer and craft the right kind of resume to get yourself into college.
  • She wrote The Outlier Effect. Buy it here.

How does college admissions fit into your creative portfolio?

Tell us about your time in China.

How did college admissions become a passion?

What was the book-writing process like?

How did you publish and why did you choose that method?

Segment 3 & 4

Let’s start with The Epic of Gilgamesh which has its origins in Sumeria. The story is easy: Enkidu shows up and challenges Gilgamesh to a fight (the herald and the call) which Gilgamesh wins. Nonetheless, they become good friends and decide to travel to Cedar Forest to slay the guardian. The Goddess Ishtar sends a bull to kill Gilgamesh after he spurns her advances and when Enkidu and Gilgamesh slay the bull, the Gods collectively decide to punish Enkidu with death. Sad and alone, Gilgamesh goes looking for eternal life, a la Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison.

Lots to unpack there. Of course the usual suspects: Herald, Goddess. The regular dramas: monster, Gods intervention. Tragedy: best friend dies.

Three more suggestions from Uchechi for our non-Western Hero’s Journey stories:

– Journey to the West – China

– Epic of Sundirata – Mali

– The Ramayana – India

Let’s start in China. So the Journey to the West is a novel published during the Ming Dynasty in the 16th century. So it predates the novel in its Western form which didn’t really become a thing until the 19th century. In it, a Buddhist monk travels the Western lands to collect sacred texts. In this instance, the “West” is Central Asia and India. The monk undergoes several trials and lots of suffering. So, you know, the usual Hero stuff.

It’s about a monkey born from stone and nourished by the Five elements who learns the art of the Tao, combat and secrets of immortality. So hero stuff. Then the monkey grows too strong and the Gods trap him in a mountain. So then, in Chapter 2, we meet the human hero, Tan Sanzang. From the site:

“Dismayed that “the land of the South knows only greed, hedonism, promiscuity, and sins”, the Buddha instructs the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara (Guanyin) to search Tang China for someone to take the Buddhist sutras of “transcendence and persuasion for good will” back to the East. Part of the story here also relates to how Tang Sanzang becomes a monk (as well as revealing his past life as a disciple of the Buddha named “Golden Cicada” (金蟬子)) and comes about being sent on this pilgrimage by Emperor Taizong, who previously escaped death with the help of an official in the Underworld.”

So this epic is in 100 chapters. It’s LONG! And so many sub-stories and characters that it’s hard to parse out. Suffice it to say, we’re seeing a lot of Hero’s Journey elements including strategically placed helpers, companions, and of course suffering.

The Epic of Sundiata which tells the story of the establishment of the Mali Empire. Love this as both Origin Story and Hero’s Journey. Origin stories are big in mythology and vampire stories. We may need an episode dedicated to them. Anyway, Sundiata is a first historical-fiction or creative non-fiction as its historical accuracy is debated.

Sundiata is a disabled prince, a child unable to walk and disrespected and abused by his father the King because of it. When his father dies and his brother takes the throne, Sundiata and his mother fall out of favor at court and Sundiata then teaches himself through magic to walk and then becomes a great warrior in a neighboring kingdom. The cruel sorcerer king of Sasso attacks Sundiata’s homeland and drives his brother out. The people cry out for Sundiata’s help and he returns, defeats the conqueror, and takes the throne.

So the basics: personal challenge (disability) and cruel upbringing, then the challenges of growing up and learning a set of skills that will prove useful when the epic battle commences.

Lastly, The Ramayana which was originally written in Sanskrit some time around 300 BC. It tells the story of the god Rama who was born, educated, won a tournament, and the hand of the princess. He’s run off through court/palace intrigue. While in exile, they go on adventures, rescue more people, forge key alliances. When he returns to his kingdom, people question his wife’s chastity so her banishes her to the forest. After she gives birth to his sons, they come of age, and they reunite with their father, she kills herself.

So. Yeah.

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